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Apr 242008

By John DeFore

It’s probably unavoidable that people living in this age of technological wonders, when faced with issues as daunting as global warming, will secretly trust science to invent a way out of them. Recent media attention to “geoengineering” schemes is just one example — the idea being that, if humans have put things into the atmosphere that are harming the environment, maybe we can put things up there to undo the damage. One much-discussed idea involves pumping untold quantities of sulfur into the atmosphere, recreating the natural climate-cooling effect of a massive volcano eruption.

Research being published today (April 24) in Science Express suggests that this plan may be less a panacea than a kudzu-like solution that creates serious problems of its own.

Scientists led by of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, noting that previous major eruptions have thinned the ozone layer temporarily, decided to explore the ramifications of this idea. Using both measurements and computer simulation, they investigated two scenarios, one that would use particles the size of volcanic debris and one using much finer material.

“The new study,” say the researchers in an announcement, “concluded that, over the next few decades, hypothetical artificial injections of sulfates likely would destroy between about one-fourth to three-fourths of the ozone layer above the Arctic.” They go on to say that injections “would also delay the expected recovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic by about 30 to 70 years.” This would counteract international efforts to repair the ozone layer, which blocks the sun’s damaging UV rays, by limiting the use of chlorofluorocarbons.

While sulfates themselves do not directly harm ozone, the particles provide a surface on which chlorine gases “can become activated and cause chemical reactions that intensify the destruction of ozone molecules”

Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, a leading voice giving credibility to the sulfur-injection idea, has been careful to note that concerns like the ones raised here may outweigh the plan’s usefulness, and that his main interest is in sparking some sort of action on the issue. As he recently told a New York Times interviewer, “Although I want it to be debated, to test whether this solution is feasible, looking for side effects is very essential. It’s not really a nice experiment to put a million tons of sulfur into the stratosphere. It’s quite a dirty experiment.”

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