Preparations are underway for a unique test of engineering technology that could open up new ways to reduce atmospheric temperatures caused by climate change, and complement conventional measures to reduce carbon emissions.
The test, the first of its kind in the UK, is expected to take place in the next few months, it was announced today at the British Science Festival in Bradford.
It is part of the SPICE project (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford, together with Marshall Aerospace.
The project will investigate the feasibility of one so-called geoengineering technique: the idea of simulating natural processes that release small particles into the stratosphere, which then reflect a few per cent of incoming solar radiation, with the effect of cooling the Earth with relative speed.† This could produce the same type of global cooling effect as a large volcanic eruption - such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991 (but without any disruption from hot lava, ash or smoke, which would not be present).† In the two years following that eruption the Earth cooled on average by about half a degree centigrade.
The SPICE project will take the very first steps in research to understand whether or not these natural processes can be mimicked and, if so, with what effect.
The technology test, led by Hugh Hunt from the University of Cambridge, involves pumping water to a height of 1km through a suspended hose, held aloft by a helium-filled balloon. This will allow the engineers to study how the hose and balloon behave over time in a variety of weather conditions and so assess the feasibility of using this approach to potentially inject particles into the stratosphere at an altitude of 20km.
Matt Watson from Bristol University, who leads the overall project, said: "SPICE is the first UK project aimed at providing some much-needed, evidence-based, knowledge about geoengineering technologies. The project itself is not carrying out geoengineering, just investigating the feasibility of doing so. We hope that by carrying out this research we will start to shed light on some of the uncertainties surrounding this controversial subject, and encourage mature and wide-ranging debate that will help inform any future research and decision-making."
Geoengineering is seen as being potentially useful in combating climate change but could also lead to unforeseen or unintended risks - for example on local weather systems, or discouraging people to take action to reduce carbon emissions.†
There will always be a range of debate surrounding this issue. An integral part of the governance process for the SPICE project is to assess and understand the potential impacts of this new technology, beneficial or otherwise, and to open up dialogue and debate around these as our understanding improves. A multidisciplinary panel of experts was set up to enable the SPICE project team to consider the direct and indirect effects of the technology, and to inform the discussion on how and if the technology should be developed now and in the future in a way that is safe, responsible and responsive to the diversity of views about geoengineering.