It’s a race against time when it comes to climate change.  Global warming is directly related to the increase in power, or magnitude, of natural disasters around the world, and if the past few hurricane seasons have shown us anything, it’s that climate change demands to be taken seriously.

So what can we do to lessen the impact of natural disasters amplified by a changing climate?

Graphics of the growing “ozone hole” found over Antarctica; picture courtesy of Creative Commons.

Peter J Irvine and his partner David W Keith propose we artificially thicken the atmosphere.  In March 2020, this duo published a paper detailing their research on how increasing the thickness of the stratosphere, a layer of the atmosphere where the “ozone-hole” caused by human activity is found, can offset the effects of climate change.  This method of combatting climate change is referred to as the Stratospheric Aerosol Geoengineering Large Ensemble (GLENS) Project.

Using a linearized scaling system, Irvine and Keith discovered that through the application of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, a method that injects chemicals into the stratosphere to thicken its layer and reduce the rate of climate change, global warming could be safely halved.  Safely is the keyword here, as the geochemists do not want to exacerbate or promote climate hazards in the more disaster-prone locations.

“Halving warming with stratospheric aerosol geoengineering could safely reduce key climate hazards.”

In the model that halved the rate of global warming, only 1.3% of land areas witnessed a “change in water availability.”  It is also important to note that scientists initially thought solar geoengineering would lead to the overall drying of Earth, symbolized by an increase in droughts and the reduction of accessible drinking water.  However, the GLENS project reports the opposite: in the lands encompassing that 1.3%, all experienced a wetting.  This indicates that the introduction of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering may not coincide with some of the problems associated with fulling offsetting global warming.  In other words, the probability of producing “winners and losers” is low.  Instead of leaving those who live in more accident-prone areas to fend for themselves, GLENS seems to offer a form of protection from more intense potential climate disasters for the whole planet.

So why not fully cancel global warming using stratospheric aerosol geoengineering?  As briefly mentioned before, completely and suddenly offsetting this phenomenon could lead to serious ramifications.  For example, instead of 1.3% of land potentially having exacerbated weather, a whopping 9.1% would experience a dramatic shift towards extreme weather if global warming was stopped completely.  As opposed to halving the effects, attempting to stop the warming process altogether would result in climate winners and losers.

Floods and other natural disasters are expected to be amplified and become more frequent should climate change continue. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons.

It is important to note that while aerosol geoengineering can help to reduce key climate hazards, it must be used in tandem with other methods of offsetting climate change.  Without cutting emissions, lowing our carbon footprint, and continuing to support sustainable energy, our ability to dampen climate-induced catastrophes will only prolong the inevitable.  Irvine and Keith’s proposition of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering cannot completely offset the effects of climate change, but it can help decrease the magnitude of climate-change-induced catastrophes, therefore making the world safer until we’re able to effectively combat this shift in history.

In the future, Irvine and Keith hope to investigate the different risks faced by various societies and ecosystems based on the GLENS project.  They hypothesize that as a whole, reducing the magnitude of climate change would be beneficial, but that there will be exceptions to the case.  In particular, they will investigate the potential outcomes in water-stressed regions where a wetting could result in more frequent floods.  The partners also encourage their peers and those outside their field to investigate the potential impact this project could have on specific geographic, economic, and cultural factors.

Irvine, P. J., Keith, D. W. Halving warming with stratospheric aerosol geoengineering moderates poilcy-relevant climate hazards.  Environment Research Publishers, (2020).