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NEWS
Study Looks At Marine Cloud Brightening To Offset Global Warming
October 10, 2017

The idea of geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, is very controversial. But as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in our atmosphere, scientists are beginning to look at possible emergency measures.

According to recent information, a new University of Washington (UW) study looks at the idea of marine cloud brightening, which a UW group is investigating as a promising strategy to offset global warming. The strategy would spray saltwater into the air to make marine clouds reflect more incoming solar rays.

Small-scale tests of marine cloud brightening would also help answer scientific questions about clouds and aerosols, two UW atmospheric scientists say in a paper published recently in the journal Earth’s Future. This dual goal for early-stage geoengineering tests would follow the U.S. National Academies of Sciences’ 2015 recommendation that any tests of geoengineering also yield a scientific benefit.

“A major, unsolved question in climate science is: How much do aerosol particles cool the planet?,” said lead author Rob Wood, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences. “A controlled test would measure the extent to which we are able to alter clouds, and test an important component of climate models.”

Other co-authors are Thomas Ackerman, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, Philip Rasch at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Kelly Wanser.

The authors are part of a group that is proposing to spray saltwater over oceans to cause a small increase in the brightness of marine clouds and boost their capacity to reflect sunlight. Doing so could be a short-term measure to offset global warming in a possible future emergency situation. In the meantime, it could also further understanding of the climate system.

One of the biggest uncertainties in climate models is the clouds, which reflect sunlight in unpredictable ways. Water droplets can only condense on airborne particles, such as smoke, salt or human pollution. When the air contains more particles the same amount of moisture can form smaller droplets, which creates whiter, brighter, more reflective clouds. Climate scientists believe pollution since the Industrial Revolution has created brighter clouds that reflect more sunlight, offsetting the warming from greenhouse gases, which trap long-wave radiation. But they can’t pin down the size of the effect or predict how much it might change in the future.

“Testing out marine cloud brightening would actually have some major benefits for addressing both questions,” Wood said. “Can we perturb the clouds in this way, and are the climate models correctly representing the relationship between clouds and aerosols?”

The proposal is now waiting on funding from government or private donors. For several years, UW researchers have been working with a group of engineers in California’s Bay Area to develop a nozzle that turns saltwater into tiny particles that could be sprayed high into the marine cloud layer. It’s the first in a series of steps needed to implement the roughly three-year plan.


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