A geoengineering startup called Make Sunsets claims it has launched weather balloons to release sulfur particles into the stratosphere, thus reflecting the sun and helping to cool the earth. Many scientists aren’t thrilled that one company has made this decision on its own to try a controversial method.
The field of geoengineering means finding ways to manipulate the climate. In this case, the sulfur particles mimic the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, when blown out particles provide a cooling effect by reflecting sunshine back to the heavens.
Like many people in the world, Luke Iseman, cofounder and CEO of Make Sunsets, is anxious about global warming and doesn’t feel like we have forever to sit around and analyze our strategies. So he chose action. Plus, he senses a business opportunity. Carbon credits, anyone?
Click on the Make Sunsets website and you get a very dumbed down version of their idea. Appearing on your screen, one line at a time, you get this message: “We launch (reflective, high altitude, biodegradable) clouds. They reflect the sun. Cooling the world so you have time to fix it. Buy cooling credits now. Your [pictures of a baby, seal, snowflake, planet earth] will thank you. COOL EARTH.” Convinced? You can hit “buy now” and pay for cooling credits in $10 increments.
So far, the company hasn’t actually done much. Iseman said he launched two weather balloons, each containing helium and a few grams of sulfur dioxide, somewhere in Baja California in April. His hypothesis was they would burst under pressure and release the particles. Did it work? Who knows? Due to lack of monitoring equipment, the balloons may or may not have burst and may or may not have reflected a few sunrays. Their current whereabouts is unknown.
“This was firmly in science project territory,” he said, as reported in MIT Technology Review. “Basically, it was to confirm that I could do it.” Personally, my science teachers required a bit more follow-up on the results of a project.
Regardless, it doesn’t sound like it was enough of an experiment to have much effect, for better or worse. Solar geoengineering expert David Keith said that the amount of material in the balloons (an estimated 10 grams) represents no serious environmental danger. After all, a commercial flight can emit 10 times the amount of sulfur in the balloons in a minute.
The bigger worry is that people think it’s okay to release their own scientific fixes on the world without any regulations or peer review. And the fact that Making Sunsets is selling dubious carbon credits without any proof that its scheme even works further muddies the atmosphere. A private company might well oversell the benefits of this technology and downplay the risks, Keith said, “Doing it as a startup is a terrible idea.”
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