Though it always seems to happen when no one is paying attention, the entire global climate change emergency got itself pretty much solved again last weekend.
I know, too late for the luckless Californians drenched by six inches of rain Sunday and Monday from another wind-whipped atmospheric river, and it’ll probably be too late for many additional populations born too late to see the actual solution in place.
But it’s a game changing brainstorm of enviro-technology and it’s perhaps best distilled for comprehension within the close mental guardrails of the following quote: “In Hawaii, many use an umbrella to block the sunlight as they walk about during the day,” University of Hawaii astronomer Istvan Szapudi said in a statement I found reviewed on Space.com. “I was thinking, could we do the same for Earth and thereby mitigate the impending catastrophe of climate change?”
And I was thinking, probably not.
Still, it makes at least as much sense as last summer’s game changer — space bubbles, a raft of frozen silicon bubbles floating in space to deflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet, and scientists on multiple continents are reportedly every bit as serious about this umbrella caper.
By the time this story made its way to the New York Times on the weekend, the great sun deflector was described as the equivalent of a giant beach umbrella, which, whether or not the comparison is apt, exquisitely highlights some of the difficulties at hand.
In my experience, few things are as daunting to position and operate as a beach umbrella. The majority of the ones I’ve set up in the sand at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, immediately turned inside out and were last seen headed toward the Maryland state line. The planet-saving beach umbrella that astronomers are talking about would have to be suspended in space near a Lagrangian Point, a spot between the Earth and the sun where the gravitational pull of both negate each other.
Man you are gonna need one hellacious cherry picker to situate that thing, right?
People with brains incalculably larger than the one that generated the previous paragraph are very serious about this despite some fairly obvious drawbacks: cost, the notion that it probably couldn’t get done in time to save ourselves anyway, the various catastrophes that would be triggered it if were damaged and the planet were subjected to sudden rapid warming, etc.
The practical hurdles are no small challenge either. The umbrella would be about the size of Argentina and weigh about 2.5 million tons, something many, many times heavier than anything humans have ever been able to launch into space. That means it would have to be assembled in space.
And, in at least one proposal, the umbrella would have to be tethered to a “repurposed asteroid.” Your repurposed asteroid sounds like something that would be hard to find, unless there’s something called Merkle’s Repurposed Asteroids on McKnight Road that I don’t know about. Maybe near Laser Storm?
Theoretically, an umbrella or a cobbled-together shield of some manner, if it could be held in place long enough, could block 1.7 percent of solar radiation, enough to cool the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius, enough to bring the climate emergency back to where most scientists would describe it as manageable.
A team of scientists at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is reportedly ready to build and test a prototype of part of the umbrella. Good news obviously, but it’s not going to be ready by the Super Bowl.
The umbrella solution, sometimes called solar radiation management, was until recently a fringe theory in geoengineering circles, but you’d imagine the fact that serious people are talking about it now demonstrates the urgency of the predicament. If the umbrella thing doesn’t work and the space bubbles are off the table, I guess it’s on to what’s called carbon capture, or vacuuming.
Because carbon from burning fossil fuels acts like a blanket in the atmosphere, resulting in the hottest Earth in over 100,000 years, there are now tens of billions of dollars in federal tax credits available to businesses and non-profits that can figure out a solution. One emerging idea is literally vacuuming carbon out of the air, but the how part is, as the cliché goes, still in its infancy.
Dire as the environment’s health can seem in an era of extreme weather events happening with greater frequency all the time, we can glean some hope, I think, from the continuing energy of the greatest astronomers, engineers, and space theorists of our time. Perhaps one day, when this gargantuan mission is behind them, they can turn their talents to even more seemingly impossible phenomenon.
Like getting Madonna to start a show on time.
Gene Collier is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: firstname.lastname@example.org and @genecollier.