Chemistry Prof Presenting At Geo-Engineering Conference

SOCORRO, N.M. March 9, 2015 – Dr. Oliver Wingenter wants to spread the caution about engineering the Earth’s Climate.

A professor of chemistry at New Mexico Tech and a research scientist in the Geophysical Research Center, Wingenter is at the forefront of the growing field of geo-engineering, which encompasses a battery of methods and new technologies that attempt to mitigate human-caused global climate change.

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Dr. Oliver Wingenter


Wingenter will be presenting his research at the Solar Radiation Management Science 2015 conference at the University of Cambridge in England from March 12 to 14. His talk centers on the unintended consequences of geo-engineering and the ethics of manipulating the environment.

“All these things haven’t been adequately modeled yet, but they need to be,” Wingenter said. “If you do stratospheric solar radiation management, a proposed method of geo-engineering, you could drive the Southern Hemisphere Westerly winds further southward and that could cause a host of climate problems. Then you would need another geo-engineering method to alleviate this side effect. It’s really scary. Kind of like taking one medication and then another for the side effects”

Wingenter’s proposal for geo-engineering involves cooling the Earth north of the Westerly Winds to restore their previous position and counteract another widely proposed form of climate engineering – stratospheric solar radiation management. This can be done by making the clouds brighter so they reflect more sunlight back into space. This can be done two ways. One involves fertilizing a small portion of the Southern Ocean with iron, the limiting nutrient of phytoplankton there. That would cause a domino effect, eventually leading to clouds that are brighter and more reflective, thus cooling the region. Another is by injecting sea spray into air which would also brighten clouds. However, Wingenter supports high level modeling before engaging in limited-scale experimentation.

“First you have an idea of what might happen and then you need to get the modeling community working on it,” Wingenter said. “I want to bring awareness of these implications to the discussion.”

Geo-engineering proposals share one goal – cooling the planet to reverse the warming trend. Most proposals involve seeding either the atmosphere or the oceans with a chemical compound that would cause a chain reaction eventually leading to less sunlight hitting the surface of the Earth.

As one example, Wingenter said a major proposal is to inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would create sulfate particles, thus reflecting more sunlight back into space and help cool the planet. However, this would further deplete ozone.

Wingenter said the unintended consequences of that plan are drastic. Cooling the Antarctic region would also lead to increased Westerly Wind and drive them further poleward. Higher winds would drive ocean circulation into a frenzy, pulling deep water that is high in CO2 up to the surface. That, in turn, would add even more CO2 into the atmosphere. A new proposal is to seed the atmosphere with titanium dioxide, which is similar to the active ingredient in sunscreen. This and other new methods will be discussed at the Cambridge conference.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech