Climate-Cooling Trial Balloon Gets Canceled

A new project will investigate the feasibility of one so-called geoengineering technique: the idea of simulating volcanic eruptions that release small particles into the stratosphere, which then reflect some of the incoming solar radiation back

Updated Sat. May 19, at 11:03 p.m. ET.

One of the first trials of geoengineering Earth's climate would have launched a balloon with a hose that could pump two bath loads of water into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight. But disagreements about that small, symbolic step combined with a patent issue to force a cancellation of the British experiment.

The original idea took inspiration from Earth's huge volcanic eruptions that toss small particles into the atmosphere. Such small particles can reflect sunlight back into space and have a cooling effect on the Earth, and so some scientists have suggested mimicking the effect to counter the climate change effects of greenhouse gas warming. But experts still fight over whether humans should try geoengineering projects that could change the Earth's climate and environment on a grand scale.

Those disagreements slowed down even the small-scale balloon effort — an "environmentally benign experiment" with no impact on the Earth's climate or biodiversity, according to Matthew Watson, principal investigator of the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project. He gave two main reasons for test's cancellation on his blog "The Reluctant Geoengineer."

First, no international agreement exists concerning where, when or how humans should try geoengineering. That lack of agreement on rules left even Watson feeling uncertain — he saw the balloon experiment as a "somewhat premature" technology demonstration, but added that "many in SPICE would disagree." [Changing Earth: 7 Ideas to Geoengineer Our Planet]

The technology itself is not the main challenge — aircraft or other existing technologies can already do the job of scattering small, reflective particles into the atmosphere. The planned balloon test would have been just 1/20th the size of a full-scale climate-cooling balloon, and would have taken place about two-thirds of a mile (1 kilometer) above a deserted field. But it had already been delayed once because of objections by environmental groups, according to Nature News.

Second, there was uneasiness over a related patent application. The SPICE project team only became aware of the patent a year into the project, which caused "significant discomfort" for Watson and many other members. They had all agreed they wanted to explore the effects of climate engineering "for the greater good" without exploiting such ideas for profit, and so they wanted time to make it clear that the patent is only to protect intellectual property.

Still, the field test's cancellation does not mean the end of the SPICE project. Watson and other SPICE members want discussions that can create an agreement to guide any future geoengineering efforts.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that one kilometer is approximately equivalent to two-thirds of a mile, rather than one-third.

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