From Carnegie Institution for Science: “Geoengineering versus a volcano”

Carnegie Institution for Science
From Carnegie Institution for Science

August 05, 2019

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A photo of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo by Jackson K., courtesy of USGS.

Major volcanic eruptions spew ash particles into the atmosphere, which reflect some of the Sun’s radiation back into space and cool the planet. But could this effect be intentionally recreated to fight climate change? A new paper in Geophysical Research Letters investigates.

Solar geoengineering is a theoretical approach to curbing the effects of climate change by seeding the atmosphere with a regularly replenished layer of intentionally released aerosol particles. Proponents sometimes describe it as being like a “human-made” volcano.

“Nobody likes the idea of intentionally tinkering with our climate system at global scale,” said Carnegie’s Ken Caldeira. “Even if we hope these approaches won’t ever have to be used, it is really important that we understand them because someday they might be needed to help alleviate suffering.”

He, along with Carnegie’s Lei Duan (a former student from Zhejiang University), Long Cao of Zhejiang University, and Govindasamy Bala of the Indian Institute of Science, set out to compare the effects on the climate of a volcanic eruption and of solar geoengineering. They used sophisticated models to investigate the impact of a single volcano-like event, which releases particulates that linger in the atmosphere for just a few years, and of a long-term geoengineering deployment, which requires maintaining an aerosol layer in the atmosphere.

They found that regardless of how it got there, when the particulate material is injected into the atmosphere, there is a rapid decrease in surface temperature, with the land cooling faster than the ocean.

However, the volcanic eruption created a greater temperature difference between the land and sea than did the geoengineering simulation. This resulted in different precipitation patterns between the two scenarios. In both situations, precipitation decreases over land—meaning less available water for many people living there—but the decrease was more significant in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption than it was in the geoengineering case.

“When a volcano goes off, the land cools substantially quicker than the ocean. This disrupts rainfall patterns in ways that you wouldn’t expect to happen with a sustained deployment of a geoengineering system,” said lead author Duan.

Overall, the authors say that their results demonstrate that volcanic eruptions are imperfect analogs for geoengineering and that scientists should be cautious about extrapolating too much from them.

“While it’s important to evaluate geoengineering proposals from an informed position, the best way to reduce climate risk is to reduce emissions,” Caldeira concluded.

See the full article here .


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Carnegie Institution for Science

Andrew Carnegie established a unique organization dedicated to scientific discovery “to encourage, in the broadest and most liberal manner, investigation, research, and discovery and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind…” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Carnegie and his trustees realized that flexibility and freedom were essential to the institution’s success and that tradition is the foundation of the institution today as it supports research in the Earth, space, and life sciences.

6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile.
6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile


Carnegie Las Campanas 2.5 meter Irénée Dupont telescope, Atacama Desert, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena,Chile


Carnegie Institution Swope telescope at Las Campanas, Chile, 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena. near the north end of a 7 km (4.3 mi) long mountain ridge. Cerro Las Campanas, near the southern end and over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high, at Las Campanas, Chile

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