Implications of Solar Geoengineering

Ashley Goland ’23

Figure 1: Geoengineering may sound like an ideal method to combat global warming, but it could put severe strain on Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

Solar geoengineering is a technology that aims to reflect incoming sunlight away from the Earth to reduce the rise of global temperatures, and one proposed approach is to send aerosols into the atmosphere. Although this method may seem like a quick, relatively cheap way to delay further climate change, the effects it could have upon marine and terrestrial organisms are not yet known. In fact, a group of six scientists, including Stony Brook professor Jessica Gurevitch, worries that the sudden changes brought about by use of this technology could threaten species that are not equipped to adjust quickly.

Historical data and the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP) allowed testing of future climate scenarios in which solar geoengineering was or was not implemented. Using numerous models to minimize errors, researchers studied situations in which aerosols were  injected into the atmosphere annually for fifty years and then abruptly stopped for twenty years; and observed the predicted consequences on temperature and precipitation.

Rapid geoengineering implementations could stall or reverse global warming effects for a decade or two, but species migration driven by climate change were observed in both simulations with and without geoengineering. Decreased precipitation in the Earth’s tropical regions would occur, leading to increased risk of forest fires, poorer air quality, and biodiversity loss. Moreover, climate signals were projected to fluctuate with time, putting strain on certain species and leading to possible extinctions.

On the tail end of the project, if the application of geoengineering was to be terminated just as suddenly as it began, the resulting large climate velocities (measurements used to track direction and speed of climate shifts) could cripple species that are unable to adapt to major changes in climate. Temperature velocities on land and sea in a post-geoengineering world are expected to be far higher than in a normal scenario, and as the most extreme projected velocities are expected in well-known hotspots of biodiversity such as tropical oceans and the Amazon Basin, a great number of species would be put at risk.

Climate engineering is a viable route to buying time in a changing global climate. However, the outcomes of this research suggest that further consideration is needed to find the best way forward, bearing ecological preservation in mind. Investigations into other geoengineering procedures may allow researchers to develop  a safer application of this technology. 

Works Cited:

[1] C.H. Trisos, et al., “Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 475-482 (2018). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0431-0

[2] Image retrieved from: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/49644336-87d8-4d28-8117-88fab647dca1

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