Harvard scientists advance controversial plan to dim sunlight

Researchers from Harvard receive permission for a test that may help cool Earth and fight global warming.

Harvard scientists advance controversial plan to dim sunlight

SCoPEx: Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment

Credit: SCoPEx
  • Swedish space agency allows Harvard researchers to test a stratospheric balloon next year.
  • The balloon may eventually be used to release particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight.
  • The goal would be to cool Earth and fight back against global warming but the approach has critics.

Harvard University researchers were given permission by the Swedish Space Corporation to carry out a test next year that may lead to releasing artificial particles into the air to partially block out the sun. This approach could potentially reduce global warming and cool our planet, but has raised geoengineering concerns among environmentalists.

The Harvard test would involve a balloon being flown about 20km (12 miles) above the Arctic town of Kiruna in Sweden next June. The balloon's gondola would be packed with 600 kg of scientific equipment and the purpose of that flight would be to try all of it out, especially the communications gear. If the test is successful, it may lead to another test in the fall of 2021 or in spring of 2022. At that point, a small amount (up to 2kg) of the non-toxic calcium carbonate would be released into the atmosphere, reported Alister Doyle of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The goal of dispersing what is essentially chalk would be to see if these particles could reflect the sunlight and thus reduce the Sun's harmful effects.

Supporters of solar engineering think technological solutions may be found to counter rising temperatures but their ideas have also faced pushback, admitted David Keith, who takes part in the project and has professorships in both applied physics and public policy at Harvard.

"There are very many real concerns" about the risks of climate change and solar geoengineering, said Keith," adding "Understanding them requires a range of activities including experiments."

Finding the right "dose" for solar geoengineering

The opponents of the idea see pitfalls in climate engineering and artifical sunshade projects. There are too many risks and unpredictable domino effects. Attempting to mitigate the effects of global warming through geoengineering obscures the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels and carbon-based economies, argue the critics.

Environmental policy expert Lili Fuhr of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany described the Harvard test as "crossing an important political red line" and thinks the small experiment will lead to larger and more dangerous ones. She believes the plan may be in violation of a UN moratorium on geoengineering, which is non-binding.

SCoPEx: Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment

Credit: SCoPEx

The leaders of the Harvard project, dubbed the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), downplayed any concerns and explained that they are complying with all regulations . The conspiracy-minded will be happy to find out that while not only 300 or so stratospheric balloons were launched around the globe in 2019, among the backers of SCoPEx is none other than the Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

While the approaches to dealing with it remain varied and debated, global warming has been linked to a variety of increasingly more severe weather effects, from heat waves to stronger hurricanes and catastrophic flooding, as well as the worsening spread of illnesses, greater pollution, economic inequality, and the accelerating extinction of wildlife. And in a sign that things aren't magically going to get better, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of over 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, predicts the temperatures around the world will rise by 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, bringing all matter of new calamity. Despite this being a global problem, countries that prepare and adapt accordingly will fare the best in the coming years.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Researchers read centuries-old sealed letter without ever opening it

The key? A computational flattening algorithm.

Photo by David Nitschke on Unsplash
Culture & Religion

An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.

Keep reading Show less

'Deep Nostalgia' AI brings old photos to life through animation

Using machine-learning technology, the genealogy company My Heritage enables users to animate static images of their relatives.

Deep Nostalgia/My Heritage
Technology & Innovation
  • Deep Nostalgia uses machine learning to animate static images.
  • The AI can animate images by "looking" at a single facial image, and the animations include movements such as blinking, smiling and head tilting.
  • As deepfake technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are concerned about how bad actors might abuse the technology to manipulate the pubic.
Keep reading Show less
13-8

When does an idea die? Plato and string theory clash with data

How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?

Quantcast