British Team Cancels Geoengineering Experiment

16 May 2012 4:15 pm

A U.K. project that is examining the feasibility of geoengineering the Earth's climate to reduce global warming will no longer involve an outdoor experiment that was scheduled to take place later this year. The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project was set to test the delivery of aerosols high into Earth's atmosphere. Today, however, planners announced that they have cancelled the test because of concerns that researchers involved in the project could have a commercial interest in its success.

Funded by the U.K. government, SPICE was set up in 2010 by British research institutions to investigate whether aerosols, such as sulfate particles, could be injected into Earth's stratosphere to scatter sunlight back into space, thereby stalling global warming. Aerosols are already known to reduce global warming: The vast clouds of sulfates thrown up in the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, for example, reduced average global temperatures by about half a degree Celsius. Releasing aerosols on purpose is controversial, however, so scientists are keen to understand how such geoengineering might proceed before any policy decisions are made. They would like to understand what sort of aerosols could be used, how they would impact different aspects of climate, and how they would be delivered to the atmosphere.

SPICE scientists were hoping to test an aerosol delivery system later this year. Researchers have proposed various schemes, including the use of high-flying planes and artillery guns. SPICE scientists, however, were going to try using a balloon to carry aloft a kilometer-long pipe that would release 150 liters of water. (The water would serve as a substitute for sulfates.)

In a statement issued today, project leader Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol said one reason the test was cancelled was a lack of international agreement on how to proceed with geoengineering research, even though it would have been "hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment." Another, he said, was that the pipe-delivery technology had been the subject of a U.K. patent application before the project began. "The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project lifetime and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort," he said. Efforts are now underway to make sure the intention of the patent application is to protect intellectual property and not to pave the way for commercial gain, he added.

Climatologist Peter Cox at the University of Exeter, who recommended the project to the U.K. government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, told ScienceInsider that two researchers involved with the project are named in the patent. One is SPICE team member Hugh Hunt, an engineer at the University of Cambridge; the other is Peter Davidson, a U.K.-based independent technology consultant who is a "mentor" for the project, Cox said.

"It's paramount that the research, at this stage, is done in a way that, where possible, it disconnects from vested interests financially," he added. "The patent would not be such an issue in my mind for other aspects of research, but it's a real issue for this research because of its nature."

Geoengineering has long been controversial, and some scientists and environmentalists fear there could be unintended consequences. "Some people say: 'You're going to reflect a bit more sunlight in order to hide the fact that you're doing something bad to the Earth's system,' " says Cox. "And others would say: 'So be it.' … It's always going to fuel debate—and it ought to, because it's such a drastic thing."

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