Life on planet Earth is struggling through an historically challenging era, thanks in no small part to the actions of our species. Some scientists have proposed labeling this period as the Anthropocene epoch due to the outsize influence that humans have had on the planet’s ecosystems, especially in the past several centuries. Anthropogenic climate change is wreaking havoc across the planet, from the melting sea ice in the Arctic to the rising sea levels in the Atlantic. Plastic pollution threatens to suffocate aquatic life while deforestation destroys essential habitat; both are contributing to what some scientists have called the sixth mass extinction. As much as humanity has altered this planet in ways that are harmful to itself and other species, some humans are now attempting to hack the planet, in big ways and small, for the good of us all.
1. Refreezing the Arctic
As nations around the world race toward carbon neutrality, it is nonetheless clear that the planet will continue to experience significant effects of climate change, even in best-case scenarios. Given that the global community is far from the path toward best-case conditions, some scientists have begun work on radical procedures that, if successful, could return Earth’s ecosystems to a pre-climate change state. Perhaps the region most associated with the fundamental ecological transformations under climate change is the Arctic.
To protect this rapidly warming region, a team of 14 scientists led by physicist Steven Desch of Arizona State University have created a plan that aims to refreeze sthe Arctic with 10 million wind-powered pumps. The system would pump water onto the sea ice during winter, freezing new layers and reinforcing the sea ice. With the Arctic predicted to be sea ice-free by the summer of 2030, something must be done. “Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels,” Desch told the Observer. “It’s a good idea but it is going to need a lot more than that to stop the Arctic’s sea ice from disappearing.”
2. Puncturing the Yellowstone Supervolcano
As the Kilauea volcano destroys buildings and forces major evacuations in Hawaii, the public is once again reminded of the dangers that volcanic eruptions can pose, often unexpectedly. If the supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park were to erupt, it could could trigger a collapse of the global agricultural and economic systems and result in the deaths of potentially millions of people. Although scientists cannot predict when such an eruption would occur, they have already prepared a plan to prevent it from occurring.
Researchers at NASA have proposed drilling into the magma chamber and adding water to cool it down, thereby preventing an eruption. However, researchers recommend drilling into the chamber from below, so as to avoid fracturing the surrounding rock and causing an eruption. Excess heat gathered through such a puncture could be converted into geothermal power. NASA estimates that such a project would cost $3.5 billion; the agency has yet to secure funding.
3. A ‘Spray-on Umbrella’ to Protect Coral Reefs
Coral reefs around the world are under severe pressure, with up to one-quarter of all reefs worldwide already considered too damaged to be saved. Climate change, overfishing, and pollution all contribute to the poor health of global coral populations. Even the sun’s UV rays are damaging coral reefs by exacerbating extreme bleaching events. To protect acute vulnerabilities in coral reefs, researchers have created what has been described as a “spray-on umbrella”: an environmentally friendly substance 500 times thinner than human hair, capable of reflecting and scattering sunlight that hits the surface of the ocean.
“It’s important to note that this is not intended to be a solution that can be applied over the whole 348,000 square kilometres of Great Barrier Reef,” Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden told the Sydney Morning Herald. “That would never be practical, but it could be deployed on a smaller, local level to protect high value or high-risk areas of reef.” Real-world experiments with the lipid-calcium carbonate substance will begin soon.
4. A Chemical Sunshade
As global temperatures continue to rise and climate change fundamentally alters ecosystems around the world, scientists are considering what some may see as drastic measures to correct a global climate spiraling into chaos. The deliberate large-scale manipulation of Earth’s climate to compensate for global warming is known as geoengineering. Scientists from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, and Thailand have now joined the debate in a new study published in Nature, arguing that if there is to be geoengineering, developing countries must lead the way.
“The technique is controversial, and rightly so,” they wrote. “It is too early to know what its effects would be: it could be very helpful or very harmful. Developing countries have most to gain or lose. In our view, they must maintain their climate leadership and play a central part in research and discussions around solar geoengineering.” Specifically, these scientists are interested in studying the effect of controlled sprays of water molecules on cloud cover reflectivity. If clouds become more reflective, they could deflect more of the sun’s rays, thus cooling the planet down. While small-scale experiments have been conducted by researchers at Harvard University, geoengineering remains on the not-so-distant horizon for now.
5. Using the Color Spectrum to Cool Down
Hacking the planet need not be done on such a large scale; sometimes small, local actions can effect large, global change. In this case, public works officials and workers in Los Angeles have figured out a way to hack the light spectrum by painting its streets white to reduce heat absorption. White-painted streets and rooftops are a low-cost, simple measure to reduce the urban heat island effect, thus saving energy otherwise spent on cooling. To achieve this impact, Los Angeles is covering its streets with CoolSeal, a light-colored paint that has already yielded positive outcomes.
“We found that on average the area covered in CoolSeal is 10 degrees cooler than black asphalt on the same parking lot,” said Greg Spotts, the assistant director of the Bureau of Street Services for San Fernando Valley, one of the hottest spots in greater LA. Currently, Los Angeles is one of the only places in the United States where heat-related deaths occur regularly during winter, a public health hazard that is expected to worsen as climate change gains strength over the next decades. If enough streets are painted white, relief from the heat may arrive in the City of Angels.
6. The Rain-Making Machine
No matter how many streets are painted white, if there is no water, there will be no city. Water held within the air, even as it stubbornly refuses to rain, represents an untapped resource with which to quench the thirst of communities around the globe. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is currently testing devices in the Tibetan Plateau that could increase rainfall in the region by as much as 10 billion cubic meters, or around 353 billion cubic feet, per year.
CASC plans to build tens of thousands of chambers across 620,000 square miles, which will burn fuel to create silver iodide. This silver iodide will then serve as a crystalline cloud-seeding agent. The chambers will be located on steep, south-facing ridges that will facilitate the sweeping of the silver iodide into the clouds to cause rainfall. As the project unfolds, 30 weather satellites will gather real-time data while the chambers work together with drones, planes, and even artillery to maximize the effectiveness of the rain-making machines. While the idea of “cloud seeding” is not new, China is the first country to pursue such a project on a large scale.