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60-Second Earth

Could Geoengineering Stop Heat Waves?

Scientists explore whether artificial volcanoes might beat the heat. David Biello reports

When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the injection of sulfur particles into the atmosphere cooled the planet. Taking inspiration from nature, some scientists have begun studying whether a man-made injection of such sulfate aerosols might stave off the worst of global warming. But could the technology also be used more locally to beat the heat?

That's the question explored by three U.C.L.A. scientists in a manuscript submitted to the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Back in 2006, California endured a heat wave that lasted more than two weeks. The scientists ran a computer model to determine whether putting particles 12-kilometers up could cool the Golden State under such conditions.

The answer appears to be yes. Afternoon temperatures declined significantly in conjunction with the amount of particles boosted to the stratosphere. For example, emitting aerosols at rates of 30 micrograms per meter-squared yielded temperature decreases of roughly 7 degrees Celsius during the hottest part of the day.

It's unclear how exactly the sulfate aerosols would get to the stratosphere absent a volcanic eruption. There would be effects downwind in the desert Southwest, including potentially even less rain. And the sulfates might eat away at the protective ozone layer.

So the researchers suggest that we might want to forestall worse heat waves in the future a different way—by cutting back on the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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