A geoengineering teaser

So, just read the "News and Views" piece in Nature Geoscience (Vol.1, (644), 2008; doi:10.1038/ngeo326) called "Climate change: Cool spray" by Heike Langenberg. I can't spend the time to really get into it, but I certainly will in the short term. The article simply reports some ideas presented by John Latham in two papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0137; 2008, and Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0136; 2008). According to Langenberg, Latham proposes as a low-cost geoengineering fix to anthropogenic global warming the injection of sea salt into the marine boundary layer. This takes advantage of the Twomey effect, whereby additional condensation sites lead to smaller cloud droplets which reflect a higher fraction of incident light (a cooling effect).

Okay, well, I haven't read the papers yet, but I will. And since this is one of those areas where I know something, I should be able to address some of the issues that this plan raises. As has been pointed out regarding other geoengineering ideas, this one is fundamentally a shortwave effect, while the global warming is a longwave one. That means that the crux of the plan relies on reducing the total energy in the climate system, probably by using thin ribbons of clouds over subtropical oceans. Meanwhile, outside of those regions, the same sunshine comes in, and the same CO2 is sitting in the atmosphere, and presumably there's still enhanced water vapor. The effect of those clouds is to change the surface temperature beneath them, creating temperature gradients in the surface air temperature and sea surface temperature. This perturbs the low-level circulation. The low level circulation moves some energy around, but the majority of the north-south energy transport in the climate system is accomplished through storms grabbing energy from the low latitudes and moving it northward. So depending on the placement and extent of this cloud shield, the effects on both the low-level wind field and the indirect effect on the storm tracks will significantly alter the naive expectation that reflecting more light back to space will offset human-induced warming.

But more on the details in a future post.