Last week, five excited Cat Perils Stormers went to see the latest catastrophe movie 'Geostorm'. It goes without explanation: 3D! A film critic's comment on the disaster movie was that "no one pays $15 to watch Gerald Butler pretend he knows how to hack a computer. They pay for the geostorms! Where are the geostorms? …".
That pretty much sums up our feelings when we left the cinema. We had each paid 24 Swiss francs though! Clearly, we felt that we had been cheated. What happened to all those fire tornadoes, continent-wide hurricanes, elephant sized hail stones that were promised by the trailer? Ok, we got the hail, but for us weather buffs all of the delivered action wasn't living up to our expectations. We didn't even find out what a geostorm is, because the movie stopped BEFORE (!) the actual geostorm happened! And don't get me started on the lack of physical explanation of some of the effects. For the interested catastrophe movie basher, we recommend an external review. I think you get the picture.
Still, let me pick up the real topic of the movie. No, not geostorms – that's not a real thing – but geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, is real enough.
In the future world the movie shows, a dense grid of weather satellites is installed around the globe. These satellites reflect sunlight onto the Earth or back into outer space, they direct electric shocks into storms to dissolve them, they are fitted with laser guns and have many other functions we struggled to understand –how do you freeze a tsunami wave? All of these measures serve to regulate the weather and prevent large catastrophes. All for human good.
So how realistic is this scenario? Geoengineering is a tricky issue, first and foremost from a moral viewpoint. It may prove to be an effective way to combat the ever-increasing impact of climate change, but at what cost? The side effects are hard to gauge, as there is no reference data available. There are many different climate engineering techniques. The most commonly discussed ones are satellites with huge mirrors reflecting some of the sun rays back into space, fertilizing algae in oceans to increase photosynthesis and take CO2 to the seabed once the algae die or – the most heavily debated one – bringing small particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, much like a gigantic volcanic eruption. A team of Harvard scientists is about to test this last method using balloons containing calcite powder to measure how much sunlight will be reflected. After all, it's important for us to understand if such a method would work. Spraying reflecting particles is a fairly affordable method to influence the climate. An economically strong country could easily apply it and thus influence the climate on its own and by its own agenda. But the impact would be hard to predict. It would certainly change rain patterns, which always creates winners and losers. Possibly there would only be losers, as humankind is still a long way from truly understanding the physical complexities of the weather and climate system. How can we influence it without triggering many unwanted side effects?
What's more, anyone following this path would be opening a Pandora's box: disadvantaged countries would be likely to fight back against the perceived weather and climate impacts with more effective engineering methods, triggering a veritable race for more powerful methods …
With this in mind, we should also think about climate engineering from an insurance perspective. Although it may sound like science fiction today - just like flying to the moon did 100 years ago - geoengineering actually is physically possible. That's why we should not reject geoengineering upfront but study its potential to reduce disaster impacts on our planet. Let's hope humankind will put the technology to sustainable use. I would like to close with the last words in 'Geostorm' – unfortunately, I can't remember them in detail (and please don't make me watch the movie again …) but they went something like "we are all one people in the same world". So be it!
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Other
Location: Zürich, Switzerland