Fighting climate change through geoengineering

As the climate continues to change as a result of human actions, the government has done little to regulate the known causes of the problem. Consider Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's recent proposal to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Such actions disregard the science behind greenhouse gases and their relation to global warming.

Contrary to Senator McConnell and his ilk, we need an effective response to global warming. One promising but little-discussed avenue to pursue is geoengineering research.


Geoengineering is a means to mitigate the effects of global climate change using modern technology and human ingenuity. The field is relatively new and therefore needs extensive research to fulfill its potential. According to a Yale University study, only 1 percent of Americans surveyed could correctly identify geoengineering as the study and implementation of methods to control the planet's climate.

Although geoengineering is not yet well understood among the public, it is likely that research in geoengineering will pay off before any international treaties or the U.S. government adequately address the issue.


Current geoengineering methods and ideas include ocean fertilization, cloud engineering and space mirrors. Ocean fertilization involves depositing iron fillings into the ocean to increase phytoplankton blooms to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. However, the iron could harm ocean organisms such as fish; critics argue that the potential consequences are not worth the risk. Additional research would help indicate whether the benefits outweigh the potential hazards.

Cloud seeding involves releasing gaseous silver iodide that forms a core, which collects water droplets. Cloud seeding increases precipitation because the water droplets accumulate until they are big and heavy enough to fall from the clouds. This method has proved effective in places such as Grantsville, Utah, where cloud seeding increases snowfall up to 15 percent during the winter, thus making more water available during dry periods in the spring and summer. Other regions in the West have seen success with cloud seeding, including in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where an evaluation of 11 operational cloud seeding projects found that six increased stream flows.

Cloud seeding is only one potential way of controlling the weather. Other weather modification projects aim to drive hurricanes farther off shore and prevent long periods of drought. Critics of weather modification argue that because the exact results cannot be predicted, no matter how extensive the computer modeling, there will likely be legal repercussions.

Other technologies are even more preliminary but offer tremendous potential. Space mirrors involve hundreds of thin reflective disks that would sit in a gravitational balance between the sun and the Earth. The disks would reduce sunlight and slow the warming of the planet. However, given current technology, the rocket fuel needed to launch the disks into space would in effect nullify the benefits. Space mirrors are an example of a solid goal that needs more research.

Another development, called biochar, is a charcoal made of organic materials used to increase soil fertility. Biochar also acts as a carbon sink by impounding carbon into the ground. The concept comes from South Americans living in the Amazon Basin, where charred animal waste and wood were distributed into the soil to make "terra preta," or black earth. According to a recent study, the use of biochar globally would absorb 20 percent more atmospheric carbon than a biochar-free world.

Critics of geoengineering argue that the odds of miscalculation in any technological study or model are too high. These critics have not given the field a fair chance. With funding for extensive research, bioengineers have the potential to greatly help mitigate the climate changes we are already seeing, such as ocean acidification, temperature rise, and the melting of polar ice caps.

While politicians sit on the sidelines, scientists and engineers have the knowledge and ability to make progress. It is also important to acknowledge that no single plan, technology or law is enough to reduce global climate change. Geoengineering is only one of the tools necessary to combat the problem.

Erica Fuhrmeister is student at the Johns Hopkins University studying environmental engineering. Her email is