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Ice-spraying balloons are the latest climate idea because we are running out of climate ideas

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It’s not a good situation

World View

The idea of using technology to directly cool Earth’s climate — most often called geoengineering — has always been equal parts bold and crazy. But it’s getting slightly more plausible every day. At an event in Washington, DC today, Harvard professor David Keith announced his new plan for testing his solar radiation management ideas, partnering with an Arizona launch site and a high-altitude balloon company called World View Enterprises. The plan is to launch a series of hover-gondolas to spray tiny particles of ice into the stratosphere, and monitor how those particles behave.

It will be years before the launches actually happen, but if they do, the resulting data could answer some of geoengineering’s biggest questions. The main problem for researchers like Keith is that we still don’t know exactly what geoengineering would do to the Earth. The general idea is to spray reflective particles into the atmosphere to throw off sunlight and counteract the effects of accumulating heat-trapping greenhouse gases. It works in theory, but actual testing can be politically dicey, so while there’s been a lot of debate around these schemes, scientists haven’t been able to do much actual research.

The Arizona balloons would be a good place to start. The balloons would carry both sprayers and sensors, letting Keith and his team get a real-time look at the effect that kind of aerosol spray would really have. And since it’s ice rather than something more lingering like sulfuric acid, you could get that data without making any lasting changes to the general climate.

Of course, the whole thing is years away from happening, if it happens at all — and even if Keith’s geoengineering scheme pulls through, we’ll still have to worry about the head-spinning political implications of a small group of people altering an entire planet’s ecosystem. But one problem at a time!

In somewhat related news, a new paper in Science broke down what it would take to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, which some scientists see as the point of no return. Among other things, it involves no longer selling gas-powered cars in the US by 2030, and moving whole cities off of fossil fuels by 2040. So get ready to see more existentially troubling clouds in the very near future!