In keeping true to form, Nye laid down his opinion on yet another contentious but intriguing field during an interview with National Geographic on Nov. 15.
In the chat, Nye said he believes that geoengineering — a family of techniques to hack the environment — could be a game-changer for combating climate change.
But the strategy is not without risks.
Geoengineering is a relatively new field of research, and it proposes techniques to cool off Earth that sound like science fiction. One involves launching a giant mirror into space to reflect sunlight rays away from the planet. Another scheme proposes to dump iron dust into the ocean to promote the growth of carbon dioxide-munching phytoplankton.
But Nye is especially intrigued by one geoengineering technique, which just may be cheaper and more feasible than than all of the others. It involves bubbling air into pools of water.
All of those bubbles would make the puddles more reflective, shunting sunlight away from Earth and back into space. Over many years, this could cool down the planet.
Russell Seitz, a physicist at Harvard University, came up with this idea on a grand scale in 2010.
Seitz proposed pumping tiny “microbubbles” into the ocean, which would increase the thickness of bright-white sea froth and foam — thus making the surface of the oceans more reflective. This would lower water temperatures, which are currently the warmest they have ever been in the past 50 years. Warm ocean water is bad because it can cause extreme weather events, devastate marine habitats, and contribute to sea level rise.
These microbubbles are basically “mirrors made of air,” Seitz told Science Magazine back in 2010. They could be made by boats tricked out with devices that mix water with compressed air.
After running some calculations, Seitz said that a particular concentration of bubbles could double the reflectivity of water and cool Earth by a whopping 3 degrees Celsius. That may not sound like a lot, but even just a few degrees of global warming can have devastating impacts on the environment — and we’re already halfway to a 2 degree C temperature limit we’re trying to avoid.
“I’m emulating a natural ocean phenomenon and amplifying it just by changing the physics,” Seitz told Science Magazine, “the ingredients remain the same.”
Nye said that you could pump these tiny bubbles into bodies of water such as power plant cooling ponds, reservoirs, and dams to increase the water’s reflectivity. At the extreme end of this, Nye told NatGeo, you could have them trail behind cargo ships. Some have also proposed pumping them into rivers and lakes.
Nye didn’t say this in the interview, but we suspect that he likes the microbubbles idea because it may be cheaper, lower-impact, and a twist on an already naturally occurring process.
But there are many things we need to consider before we start pumping air into natural ecosystems.
For one, Seitz admitted to Physics.org, it would be extremely hard to bubble the entire ocean. It would take the energy of roughly “1,000 windmills,” and the bubbles may disperse before they can have an effect.
We also do not know what the long-term impacts to marine ecosystems would be, Nye said. The extra oxygen could hurt them, or it could provide more food for phytoplankton.
But still, it seems worth considering.
“[I]t’s the kind of idea I want people to at least think about because we’re going to need that kind of ‘blue sky’ thinking in the future,” Nye told National Geographic, “where humankind controls the temperature of the world in these subtle, global ways.”
If you want to check out more of Nye’s ideas on how to fix global warming, read the entire National Geographic interview here.
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