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Global cooling won't be a quick fix for the state of our oceans

In the fight against climate change, scientists from the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht are exploring methods to mimic natural global cooling phenomena. One such approach, called stratospheric aerosol injection, involves triggering Earth’s cooling response. 

While this strategy offers a potential for rapid global cooling, the study emphasizes the importance of focusing on addressing the underlying causes of climate change.

Stratospheric aerosol injection

Stratospheric aerosol injection, or SAI, is a proposed technique to combat climate change. It involves mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions by spraying reflective particles high up in the atmosphere, specifically the stratosphere. These particles, similar to those released during eruptions, would reflect a portion of the sun’s incoming radiation back into space, creating a cooling effect on Earth.

However, it’s crucial to understand that SAI is currently just a theoretical solution. While it holds some promise, significant research and development are needed before it can be considered a viable option.

Two approaches to global cooling

The scientists simulated two aerosol injection scenarios: the “gradual fix” and the “emergency fix.”

The gradual fix scenario started early, around 2020, with small, regular releases of reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. This was designed to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, but over a longer period. The aim was to steadily lower global temperatures by increasing the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight (albedo).

By contrast, the emergency fix scenario started later at a critical point in 2080, releasing a large amount of reflective particles all at once. The goal was to rapidly bring down global temperatures to safer levels in response to a severe climate crisis.

Limited effectiveness of aerosol injection 

The study demonstrated that spraying reflective particles into the upper atmosphere could temporarily slow down rising global temperatures at the surface. However, this technique has limitations. It would not significantly affect the heat already absorbed by the deep ocean, which takes much longer to warm and cool. 

“The big picture result is that we believe we can control the surface temperature of the Earth, but other components of the climate system will not be so fast to respond,” explained study lead author Daniel Pflüger, a physical oceanographer at Utrecht University. 

Additionally, aerosol injection wouldn’t help restore important ocean circulation patterns or processes like deep water formation in the North Atlantic, which are crucial for the planet’s climate and ecosystems. 

The study shows that aerosol injection might be able to slow down or prevent climate tipping points from happening in the first place, noted Daniele Visioni, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was not involved in the research. “But aerosol injection cannot magically restore things. We cannot kick the can down the road forever.”

Broader implications 

The researchers warn that solely relying on geoengineering solutions is not enough to combat climate change. While global cooling methods might offer temporary relief, they don’t address the root causes of global warming.

The study emphasizes the importance of two main objectives: reducing greenhouse gas emissions through early and consistent efforts, and exploring new technologies for both mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects.

The right approach should involve collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and communities. Instead of solely focusing on technological fixes, the future of climate intervention should aim to reshape our relationship with the environment for a sustainable and equitable future for all. 

To achieve this, we must comprehend the complex dynamics of Earth’s systems and develop long-term strategies that promote sustainability and resilience against climate change.

The study is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


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