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Sulphur the answer to climate woes?

Paul Crutzen thinks so. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist proposes that we dump sulphur into the stratosphere to offset global warming.

Sound shocking? Professor Crutzen's idea is being seriously considered by others in the scientific community. And why not? He is one of three brilliant scientists, (Mario Molina and Sherwood Roland being the others) who are hailed as global saviours.

Crutzen, Molina and Roland each share the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, having demonstrated the intricacies of the ozone layer, i.e., how it forms and decomposes, and how sensitive it is to anthropogenic (man-made) emissions.

As a result of their brilliant work, substances that deplete the ozone have been identified, hence a course of action charted. One example that we might easily recognize includes, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as "freons" used as refrigerant, and in spray cans, etc., or plastic foam products like drinking cups and packaging materials. Subsequently, the world has responded in an attempt at corrective measures. For more information see The Montreal Protocol.

Contingency escape route needed

Now, since the powers-that-be paid attention and responded to the looming catastrophe of our depleted ozone layer and the infamous hole in the ozone, one would expect meaningful action on the current global warming crisis. Tragically, this is not so.

In the United States, the oil-soaked George W. Bush administration has consistently downplayed the threat and the scientific data. As chief of staff for the White House council on environmental quality, Philip Cooney (a non-scientist) and a former oil industry lobbyist edited the Bush administration's official policy papers on climate change, playing down the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. It would appear that Cooney merely continued on with his previous mission for the American Petroleum Institute (API). This powerful lobby group represents oil giants and focuses on countering the virtual consensus among scientists that man-made emissions are rapidly heating the planet

Most recently, The Wall Street Journal reports that a lobbying group linked to Exxon Mobil is behind a new video attack on Al Gore’s 'An Inconvenient Truth'. "in the video, Mr. Gore appears as a sinister figure who brainwashes penguins and bores movie audiences by blaming the Mideast crisis and starlet Lindsay Lohan's shrinking waist size on global warming. Like other videos on the popular YouTube site, it has a home-made, humorous quality. The video's maker is listed as "Toutsmith," a 29-year-old who identifies himself as being from Beverly Hills in an Internet profile. In an email exchange with The Wall Street Journal, Toutsmith didn't answer when asked who he was or why he made the video, which has just over 59,000 views on YouTube. However, computer routing information contained in an email sent from Toutsmith's Yahoo account indicate it didn't come from an amateur working out of his basement."

For more ExxonMobil "literature" on global warming, see the newspaper ad with annotations by Environmental Defense climate scientist, Dr. James S. Wong, PhD (Harvard University).

Canada's new Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper's approach to the environment echoes that of Bush. Not surprising, since Harper and Bush have a lot in common.

It's no wonder then, that Professor Crutzen has little faith in our corporate-dominated governments to address the climate crisis. According to this article (originally published in The Independent), Professor Crutzen believes that the "grossly disappointing" political attempts to limit man-made greenhouse gases are so pitiful that a radical contingency plan is needed. In a polemical scientific essay to be published in the August issue of the journal Climate Change, he says that an "escape route" is needed if global warming begins to run out of control.

Professor Crutzen proposes scattering sulphate particles high into the stratosphere, there to act as tiny mirrors in order to reflect the sun's rays away from the Earth. This in turn, would cool the planet. His model is based in part on the 1991 Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption which sent thousands of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere causing global temperatures to fall.

Mount Pinatubo Ash Plume 1991Still, this geoengineered escape route seems neither desirable nor risk-free, but instead, a last-ditch "get the hell outta Dodge" kind of route

From NASA Earth Observing System (EOS)

"The impact of volcanoes on the Earth System was dramatically demonstrated in 1991 by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. The June 1991 eruptions of Pinatubo have had near-global effects on weather and climate via the introduction of sulfur dioxide and aerosols into the atmosphere.

This eruption represents the second largest volcanic eruption this century, second only to Mt. Katmai (Alaska) in 1912. The materials injected into the stratosphere by Mt. Pinatubo circled the globe in 3 weeks, and covered about 42% of the Earth's surface in only two months. Satellite observations made two years after the eruption show that this aerosol layer still exists, and that many parts of the world experienced a drop in average temperature of approximately 0.5 degrees C in 1992 compared to the 30-year average.

The cold, snowy weather in New Zealand in late 1992, the severe storm damage caused by hurricanes such as Andrew and Iniki in the fall of 1992, and the heavy rains in the Midwest of the USA in the summer of 1993 have all been linked to the atmospheric effects of the eruption of Pinatubo".

A glaring irony

Another of the downsides of the suggested sulphur remedy, is further destruction of the ozone layer. One can assume that this glaring irony is not lost on Professor Crutzen. This Wikipedia feature article says, "The eruption [of Mount Pinatubo] had a significant effect on ozone levels in the atmosphere, causing a large increase in the destruction rate of ozone. Ozone levels at mid-latitudes reached their lowest recorded levels, while in the southern hemisphere winter of 1992, the ozone hole over Antarctica reached its largest ever size until then, with the fastest recorded ozone depletion rates."

As it stands the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) ll at NASA Langley Research Center, demonstrates a "significant downward trend in lower stratospheric ozone trends".

Whitening skies is listed as another side effect of the proposed sulphur solution. But, for those of us who actually watch the skies, whitening is nothing new. The last time we saw achingly clear blue skies was in the three day period following the disaster on 9-11 when virtually all air traffic was grounded. The absence of air traffic gave scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the effects of contrails.

It isn't raining rain you know ... it's raining sulphuric acid

We must consider the consequences of even higher levels of sulphur dioxide as it falls to the Earth as both particulate and acid rain. The Environmental Protection Agency states, "Acid rain causes acidification of lakes and streams and contributes to damage of trees at high elevations (for example, red spruce trees above 2,000 feet) and many sensitive forest soils.

In addition, acid rain accelerates the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable buildings, statues,and sculptures that are part of our nation's cultural heritage. Prior to falling to the earth, SO2 and NOx gases and their particulate matter derivatives, sulfates and nitrates, contribute to visibility degradation and harm public health".

In this video news clip the CBC measures the effectiveness of the 1991 Canada/US acid rain accord.

Victims of acid rain. Dead and dying Red Spruce in MainePublished in Science Daily, this study by University of Vermont researchers finds that "acid rain’s damage to America’s forests may be much more widespread than previously believed. It may actually create conditions in trees similar to compromised immune systems in humans, creating a potentially grave scenario".

As lakes, streams and oceans acidify, all aquatic life including sensitive marine plants, fish, mammals and plankton are routinely decimated. Human inhalation of the particulate matter may result in severe respiratory illness and death. It's pretty clear that high levels of sulphur dioxide and life on the planet are incompatible.

Such a radical measure as dumping sulphur directly into the stratosphere has the potential to worsen this lethal scenario. Professor Crutzen must hold a very dim view indeed of our leaders' contemptible lack of progress on the climate crisis. It's like chemotherapy for the planet ... almost killing the patient in order to save her. And as many of us know, chemotherapy is an ugly business, and frequently unsuccessful. But that's another story.

Weather modification gets green light

The Independent's Science editor Steve Connor writes, "Professor Crutzen, however, argues that the “grossly disappointing” international political response to the necessity of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means that it should no longer be considered taboo to think about geoengineering of the climate".

A talking point that big oil and industry players along with their government cronies will no doubt seize on. It's easier after all, to bandage the wounds than to blunt the instruments of laceration. Already the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has voted to approve a bill by Republican Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison establishing a weather modification program. This will legalize chemical experimentation in the skies and may include attempts to create rain, suppress hail, limit hurricanes and tornadoes, and diffuse thunderstorms.

But the Bill also alludes to unnamed objectives. They come under the umbrella "and for other purposes". Exactly what other purposes? And how can those in a position of such responsibility vote on a piece of legislation with such far-reaching global consequences, when the stated objectives are so vague?

Many scientists and weather experts believe that tampering with sensitive weather systems may have disastrous consequences.

Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), John H Marburger, has written to Senator Hutchison stating, "The Administration respectfully requests that you defer further consideration of the bill pending the outcome of an inter-agency discussion of these issues that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would coordinate – with the Department of Justice on legal issues, with the Department of State on foreign policy implications, with the Departments of Defense and State on national security implications, and with pertinent research agencies to consider the reasons the U.S. Government previously halted its work in this area."

The complete letter is available for view on the OSTP website.

Marburger cites several concerns, including:

Local Political & Legal Ramifications
Because small scale weather modification (e.g., cloud seeding) may promote rain in one area to the detriment of another, weather modification could result in inter-state (including Indian Tribes) litigation or private citizen litigation against the modification programs.

The legal and liability issues pertaining to weather modification, and the potential adverse consequences on life, property, and water resource availability resulting from weather modification activities, must be considered fully before the U.S. Government could take responsibility for this new research program.

International and Foreign Policy Implications
Small and large scale (e.g., hurricane) weather modification efforts could benefit the United States to the detriment of other countries (such as Canada or Mexico).

Given global weather patterns, whether one country “owns” its weather so as to assert intra-border control with extra-border consequences, must be considered under present international conventions.

The manner in which such a program could benefit or harm the present U.S. positions on foreign policy matters, such as global warming/climate change, should also be considered.

National Security Implications
The U.S. Government’s previous weather modification programs were part of our Cold War history; restarting them today could promote (possibly hostile) foreign responses.

In 1978, the United States became a party to an international treaty banning the use of weather modification for hostile purposes. While modification for peaceful purposes is allowed, whether well-intentioned programs could be considered “hostile” and perceived to violate this ban should be considered.

Research Issues
The Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) primary atmospheric and meteorological research focus is on improving weather forecasting, which has proven to save lives and property. NOAA abandoned weather modification activities some time ago in favor of other research areas that more directly relate to the agency’s core mission and responsibilities.

Redirecting funding to focus on weather modification can shift funds away from other important programs such as research to improve weather forecasting capabilities for severe weather events and research to better understand climate variability and change.

Weather as a weapon

With or without the legal cover of a weather modification bill, there have been many horrific military atmospheric experiments perpetrated on a naive planetary populace. From Project Argus (1958) to HAARP (present). Professor Rosalie Bertell offers a disturbing overview. Take a look.

In a study (1995-1996) conducted for the Air Force Chief of Staff come frightening future weather war scenarios. "Weather modification will become a part of domestic and international security and could be done unilaterally... It could have offensive and defensive applications and even be used for deterrence purposes. The ability to generate precipitation, fog, and storms on earth or to modify space weather, ... and the production of artificial weather all are a part of an integrated set of technologies which can provide substantial increase in US, or degraded capability in an adversary, to achieve global awareness, reach, and power." See: US Air Force, Air University of the US Air Force, AF 2025 Final Report.

For an in-depth look at the military use of weather as a weapon, see The Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction: Owning the Weather for Military Use by Professor Michel Chossudovsky.

In the end

So, is there an upside to the proposed dumping of sulphur into the stratosphere? Well, yes. We'll have prettier sunrises and sunsets.

And finally, perhaps if enough respected scientists and weather experts toss frightening global warming solutions into the court of public opinion – there to be rejected, the proponents of Senator Hutchison's bill, can ride in and "save us" with their damnable Weather Modification Act They do after all, need to get the people onside ... and to pick up the tab.

Air Apparent. August 2006

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