It’s 2055. A row of airplanes streak across the sky. They’re barely visible because they’re flying far above the usual traffic of jetliners, transport balloons, and delivery drones.
The mission is to release a cloud of tiny particles into the atmosphere. The cloud creates a barrier that reflects sunlight back into space, keeping it from being absorbed on Earth, where it would further warm the planet.
The planes do this every day, as they have for years.
They’re effective. Because of these planes, there are fewer killer heat waves. Some reports say ice loss at the poles has slowed. There are side effects of altering the atmosphere. Massive droughts have caused famines, and some worry the same technology could be used as a weapon.
That scene, which describes geoengineering, isn’t happening today, contrary to what some conspiracy theorists might tell you. But it soon might. Some scientists think geoengineering could be our last resort to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
As far out as it sounds, we’ve already seen a lesser form of related experiments with cloud seeding — a way to make it rain by dropping silver ions into the atmosphere — by governments in China and the United Arab Emirates. But the much larger-scale modification of the atmosphere is being worked on already.
This year, a team of scientists at Harvard is hoping to launch what will be the first engineering test flight for one of the first outdoor sky-modifying geoengineering experiments. They know the technology is so risky it might never be safe enough to use, and there are major ethical considerations about who gets to decide what part of the planet gets this treatment, because the effects would be global.
What they discover could one day change the course of planetary history.
Modifying the sky with technology
The term geoengineering refers to the use of technology to modify the planet’s atmosphere, and it comes in two forms: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and more controversial technologies (as in the scenario above) that modify the skies to temporarily cool the world.
Proponents of geoengineering research argue we need to push ahead with studies so that we can model the risks and benefits of the technology. Modifying the sky could put the brakes on the warming that the world is experiencing. Most scientists say it wouldn’t affect the processes that are making the world warmer, which are mainly driven by greenhouse-gas emissions caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. But it might temporarily stop or slow those effects from getting worse.
Opponents argue the risks of even experimenting with solar geoengineering (also known as solar-radiation management) are too high, that alternatives haven’t been properly explored, and that outdoor experiments are politically dangerous and could eventually lead to military use of weather-altering technology.
Either way, we don’t know whether geoengineering will work. The Harvard experiment could change that.