Harvard Scientists Launch $20M 'Stratospheric Injection' Climate Change Experiment

US scientists fearing for Earth's climate future begin testing solar geoengineering. The consequences may be terrifying — which is exactly why we need these small-scale experiments.


Climate scientists have been drawing red lines in the sand for some time, pointing out various thresholds we dare not cross for fear of doing irreparable damage to the planet and our future on it. And yet we continue to do not enough, and one by one those milestones are falling behind us. Few experts now believe we'll be able to avoid warming the earth past the 1.5°C increase that's expected to signify irreversible catastrophe. To the horror of experts who have been desperately trying to get our attention in the hopes that we may still have time to change our ways, more and more scientists are switching to Plan B. Their attitude is essentially, "Okay, the battle may already be lost. Let's see if we can geoengineer our way out of this mess." And now researchers at Harvard are about to begin the largest geoengineering experiment ever, a $20 million project to see if they can simulate the cooling effects of a natural volcano in the atmosphere.

There are basically two objections to bioengineering experiments like this.

First is that they take scarce financial resources away from clean energy research and other projects to mitigate the damage we're doing. Indeed, the Harvard team envisions a man-made solar shield covering the earth for $10 billion a year.


Alaska’s Pavlov volcano (NASA/GODDARD)

Second, bioengineering can be an extremely dangerous thing to experiment with. Kevin Trenberth, of the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change, recently told The Guardian that he understood researchers' growing desperation, "But solar geoengineering is not the answer,” he said. “Cutting incoming solar radiation affects the weather and hydrological cycle. It promotes drought. It destabilizes things and could cause wars. The side effects are many and our models are just not good enough." We have plenty of evidence that the volcanic cooling Harvard wants to learn to replicate can be devastating: The Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 caused crop failures, resulting in famine and outbreaks of disease during Europe's "year without a summer."

The Harvard scientist leading the project, Frank Keutsch, doesn't especially disagree, but he says, “At the same time, we should never choose ignorance over knowledge in a situation like this." When Harvard’s scientists look at the intersection between our energy and climate systems, they don’t see how we can switch to cleaner fuels in time, and the’ve produced a video to make their case.

The first test Harvard has planned is a $10 million "stratospheric controlled perturbation" (SCoPEX) test. In the experiment, a “StratoCruiser” suspended from a balloon would spray a mix of water and small, reflective sulphate particles into the stratosphere 20km up to generate a 100-meter wide and 1-kilometer long ice plume.


(DYKEMA)

The craft has an engine, aerosol generator, and detection equipment. What they want to observe is if there are harmful side-effects to our injecting sulphur into the atmosphere as volcanoes do. If they see a sudden drop in ozone — vital for shielding us from the sun’s radiation — they'd shut the experiment down. They say the test won’t put any more sulphur into the stratosphere than an intercontinental flight from Europe to the U.S.

The scientists are currently lab-testing a limestone compound for its aerosol properties with the plan to send that up next in a StratoCruiser. By 2022, they hope to deploy two small scale water dispersals, followed by calcium carbonate particles. Aluminum oxide and diamonds are other possible materials to be aerosolized and injected into the skies at some point down the road.


(PENN STATE)

Geoengineering advocates recognize that large scale tests are too dangerous to attempt, and there’s no clear-cut way to extrapolate large-scale outcomes from small-scale test results. So the only option left is to conduct so many small experiments that scientists can feel at least somewhat more confident about what to expect in larger deployments.

“To me, solar geoengineering is terrifying,” says Daniel P. Schrag in Harvard’s video. “We’re talking about an engineering project that will affect every living thing on this planet. The possibility that something could go wrong is really scary… and yet, as scary as that is, and uncertain as some of the impact of solar engineering may be, I think the evidence is clearer and clearer that not doing climate bioengineering, and letting climate change proceed, may be actually worse.”

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.