In October, Hurricane Patricia became the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, whipping up tornado-like winds of over 200 mph.
Patricia lost steam as it made landfall, but more devastating storms will form in the future as climate change warms Earth’s oceans, so the likelihood of disaster will only increase.
Luckily researchers now believe there’s a way to stop hurricanes. Pumping billions of tons of a dense gas into the atmosphere could create a “sunglasses effect,” which they say would absorb some sunlight and cool down warm ocean water, the engines of hurricanes — but with a huge sacrifice.
Right now the world is focused on Plan A: Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to get climate change under control. Some argue it’s already too late to reverse runaway climate change by cutting emissions. Yet if we haven’t passed the point of no return, the world has yet to agree on a comprehensive plan that curbs emissions enough to make a difference.
That’s why geoengineers are hard at work developing a Plan B.
According to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if we pumped sulfate gases into our planet’s upper atmosphere, we could cool down our oceans enough to cut the number of Katrina-force hurricanes in half over the next 50 years. It’d require about 10 billion tons of sulfates to get the job done, which is tens or hundreds of times the sulfates a typical volcanic eruption can form.
Sulfates are known to block out some wavelengths of light. So regularly pumping the chemicals into the atmosphere would essentially create a giant pair of sunglasses for the Earth, and bring the overall temperature of the oceans down.
We already have natural evidence that this works.
“The explosive volcanic eruptions of Katmai (Alaska, June 1912) and El Chichon (Mexico, April 1982) preferentially loaded the Northern Hemisphere with aerosol, and they were followed by the least active hurricane season on record in 1914 and the least active hurricane season in the satellite observation period in 1983,” the researchers write in the paper.
It might be tricky to get the right balance, they note, since a cooler Atlantic means more intense Pacific hurricanes, and a cooler Pacific means more intense Atlantic hurricanes.
Meteorologists aren’t sure why that happens. However, if both the Atlantic and the Pacific are cooled, it would temper the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in both oceans, just maybe not as much as much as we’d expect.
Regardless, it would work and we’d actually be able to afford it, according to the researchers. Pumping 10 billion tons (the weight of about 100,000 aircraft carriers) of sulfate into the atmosphere every year would cost about $US10 billion per year, which is relatively cheap when compared to the expenses of cutting back greenhouse gases, John Moore, lead author on the paper, told Popular Mechanics.
This all sounds like a pretty straightforward solution: We pump sulfates into the atmosphere, the oceans cool down, and fewer hurricanes devastate our cities. But there’s one huge problem: Pumping that much sulfate into the atmosphere would poke holes in the protective ozone layer surrounding the Earth. The ozone is critical because it protects us from deadly radiation from the sun.
So sulfates aren’t a viable option, but the model itself could still work. Engineers are already working on a mix of gases that mimic the shading property of sulfates. If they’re successful, we could pump those artificial particles into the atmosphere without shredding the ozone.
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