Professor’s Article Describes How to Restore Wind and Climate

SOCORRO, N.M. August 9, 2010 – Chemistry professor Dr. Oliver Wingenter, also a research scientist at Tech’s Geophysical Research Center, is among a core group of scientists pushing for more field, lab and modeling research in geoengineering.

Wingenter, along with colleagues Dr. Scott Elliott of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Dr. Don Blake at the University of California-Irvine, published a paper in the journal Atmospheric Environment that proposes a possible way to reverse the southward shift of the westerly winds and decrease their speeds in the Southern Hemisphere while reversing many aspects of global climate change.

  Dr. Oliver Wingenter, chemistry professor at New Mexico Tech, explains the role of Westerly Winds in the global atmospheric cycles.


In their article “Restoring the Westerly Winds in the Southern Hemisphere”, they propose methods to reduce certain climate trends such as increasing emissions of CO2 from the ocean and melting of Antarctica and strongly urge that more research is needed into climate engineering.  Despite increasing awareness about the effects of atmospheric carbon on climate, emissions continue to rise.

“Although progress is being made in some areas to reduce CO2, emissions of greenhouse gases continue to accelerate at a rate worse than the worst case scenario,” Wingenter said. “If Plan A is to reduce emissions, what is Plan B?”

Human activity has adversely affected the complex interplay of atmospheric and ocean circulation. Natural processes that govern climate include carbon sinks in the ocean, water temperatures, the prevailing westerly winds and cloud brightness, among others.  Wingenter says the westerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere represent a key variable in the global climate system. As more waste CO2 is discarded into the atmosphere, the westerly winds shift farther south towards Antarctica.

The concept of climate engineering – or geo-engineering – has scientists, activists and politicians debating the ethics and merits of purposeful environmental manipulation. Wingenter says scientists should not censor their ideas but large-scale field applications must be governed by international scientific commissions.

Wingenter and colleagues propose ideas to restore equilibrium to the Earth’s system by managing solar radiation over the Southern Ocean region. He has previously conducted ship-board experiments, fertilizing two small patches of the Southern Ocean with iron salts to study the impact on clouds. These ocean experiments were over areas of 15 kilometer by 15 kilometers.

He says cloud brightening may restore the location and slow the westerly winds in the Southern Hemispheric back to a point in time observed 50 years ago and protect Antarctic ice from further loss. The general principle involves seeding clouds over the Southern Ocean by fertilizing small portions of the ocean with trace amounts of iron in order to stimulate phytoplankton growth and sulfur emissions into the atmosphere and brighten clouds or by injecting sea salt spray into clouds as proposed by J. Latham and S. Salter. These climate intervention ideas are expected to help stabilize climate by decreasing average temperatures across the Southern Hemispheric westerly winds by 0.5 degree C. However, Wingenter says extensive research needs to be done first. 

“We shouldn’t deploy large-scale experimenting unless we know and can lessen unintended consequences,” he said. “It’s scary to think how much we don’t know. We need to approach geoengineering with the urgency of the Manhattan Project – get researchers working on a solution well before we may actually need it so that we can debate the pros and cons in an informed manner.”

In a related 2008 paper appearing in Nature, J.R. Toggweiler and J. L. Russell present model findings that link wind, ocean circulation and global warming. That paper focuses on the impact of anthropogenic emissions on the westerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere. The proposal by Wingenter and colleagues shows how to reverse this trend using cloud brightening. Furthermore, instead of fertilizing massive areas with iron to create phytoplankton blooms in order to “sink carbon,” his research shows that minimal iron fertilization will create brighter clouds, which will help keep Antarctica colder. He proposes brightening the clouds by about 1 percent in the Southern Ocean region – but only after extensive research has been done and is found safe, followed by a slow field ramp up.

“If preliminary research shows we can cool this region with little risk, we could proceed slowly, in stages,” he said. “We need to be prudent, do more modeling and small-scale studies before global warming becomes critical.” 

Some scientists propose massive iron fertilization of the Southern Ocean to draw down atmospheric CO2, but Wingenter says that could produce a dangerous thermal imbalance which could adversely disrupt winds and weather patterns.

Wingenter and Elliot have begun using the Biogeochemical Parallel Ocean Program on supercomputers, including LANL’s and New Mexico’s Encanto, to model some of their hypotheses.

“The scientific community needs to continue improving the accuracy of models,” he said. “We need to greatly improve our understanding of the climate system before we are to be able to actually implement geoengineering.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech