Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ocean geoengineering scheme no easy fix for global warming

This map displays simulated additional surface warming (in Celsius) for the year 2100 caused by the temporary use of artificial upwelling in the green areas for the time period 2011-2060. Credit: IFM-GEOMAR

(National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK)) Pumping nutrient-rich water up from the deep ocean to boost algal growth in sunlit surface waters and draw carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere has been touted as a way of ameliorating global warming. However, a new study led by Professor Andreas Oschlies of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, pours cold water on the idea.

"Computer simulations show that climatic benefits of the proposed geo-engineering scheme would be modest, with the potential to exacerbate global warming should it fail," said study co-author Dr Andrew Yool of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS). …

The aim would be to mimic the effects of natural ocean upwelling and increase drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide by phytoplankton through the process of photosynthesis. Some of the sequestered carbon would be exported to the deep ocean when phytoplankton die and sink, effectively removing it from the system for hundreds or thousands of years.

A previous study, of which Yool was lead author, used an ocean general circulation model to conclude that literally hundreds of millions of pipes would be required to make a significant impact on global warming. But even if the technical and logistical difficulties of deploying the vast numbers of pipes could be overcome, exactly how much carbon dioxide could in principle be sequestered, and at what risk?

In the new study, the researchers address such questions using a more integrated model of the whole Earth system. The simulations show that, under most optimistic assumptions, three gigatons of carbon dioxide per year could be captured. This is under a tenth of the annual anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, which currently stand at 36 gigatons per year. A gigaton is a million million kilograms. … when the simulated pumps were turned off, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and surface temperatures rose rapidly to levels even higher than in the control simulation without artificial pumps. This finding suggests that there would be extra environmental costs to the scheme should it ever need to be turned off for unanticipated reasons. …

Ocean geoengineering scheme no easy fix for global warming

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