This column is sponsored by ESRI
There are an increasing number of big science ideas for reversing the warming course of our planet, such as massive dumps of iron into the ocean to foster carbon-sucking algae growth or pumping sulfur into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s heat. While all of these efforts are an enormous gamble, escalating pressures placed on our planet by global warming may elevate how seriously these ideas are contemplated. Any contemplation will require in-depth modeling and analysis, and geospatial technologies will play a role.
There’s a growing interest to apply geospatial tools on a global scale, and datasets are growing to offer enlightening insight into large-system science. The means of the Internet provides a conduit and concentration of knowledge that can be applied to such large-scale problems with increasing insight. The global community of scientists and researchers are applying their efforts in collaboration rather than isolation, and that’s an encouraging development that will speed our understanding and spread the solutions widely.
It’s likely that governments will encourage research into big science solutions to the growing harmful economic and social impacts of climate change. There’s a long history of such concerted efforts to understand and manipulate earth systems, and there’s huge risk of sitting idly by when the pressures continue to mount. Each of the serious big scheme ideas should be dissected for the costs and benefits they provide.
Take the idea of fostering algal growth to absorb carbon. We know of large-scale naturally occurring blooms through observations via remote sensing satellites and measurements from direct observations in the oceans below. Existing computer models are tracking variables and closely monitoring conditions now. It’s possible to feed what we know now into such models to extrapolate potential outcomes, but considerable experimentation will be necessary in order to truly understand the reactions taking place.
This experimentation will require many more measurements on a massive scale that are inline with the idea of the Global Earth Observation Systems of Systems (GEOSS). With integrated space observation platforms and surface sensors, along with large-scale software systems to ingest and model the data, we stand to gain a great deal of insight into the interworkings of our planet.
There may indeed be an answer out there that could have short-term positive impacts on pending global change, but do we really know enough to provide positive change without catastrophic side effects?
The problem with such far-reaching tinkering with planetary systems is that there’s no measurable precedent, and no control on ancillary outcomes. Our exploration into questions of planetary health are still rather young, and the length and breadth of our observations are also short. We only need to look at past failed practices and experiments to reach the humbling conclusion that, while we know a great deal about our planet, we don’t truly understand the complexities of the interrelationships of earth systems. Past efforts of reproducing Earth systems in controlled environments (Biosphere 2) should remind ourselves of the still mysterious and magical balance of life on Earth.
When you think about this issue deeply, you come to the realization that we’ve been practicing a form of geoengineering at least since the Industrial Revolution. The industrialization of the world, with carbon-belching factories and pollution clogging our air and waterways, has had profound effects on our planet. To think that we can engineer a large-scale and speedy fix to the ills of our climate is arrogant. It’s also dangerous to think that a clever global solution is just around the corner, hampering and delaying the realization that concerted action and changes in behavior have to occur now.
The solutions to climate change can be found in measured and integrated approaches that produce clean energy, tackle carbon sequestration, and put our environment back in balance. Geospatial technologies will be used in each of these lower scale alternatives, and for any course that we choose where we need an in-depth understanding of our planet.
Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this topic here.