Geoengineering New Mexico’s Climate Future or: Screaming for Sulfur Seeded Sunsets


If you find yourself near Fort Sumner any time during the next year, keep your eyes to the sky; you’re bound to see something strange floating in the stratosphere.

It could be Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free-falling from 120,000 feet at speeds that could break the sound barrier.

Or maybe high-altitude military drones from Holloman Air Force Base spying on unsuspecting New Mexico motorists. 

Perhaps you’ll see British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceships blasting other billionaires into space from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences.

All these are possibilities, but if it’s eastern New Mexico you’re in it’s probably two Harvard geoengineers spraying sun-reflecting sulphates into the stratosphere from a balloon suspended 80,000 feet over Fort Sumner.

The balloonists hope their mists will mimic the cooling effect of large-scale volcanic eruptions.

When volcanoes erupt they release aerosols, microparticles of fine solids and liquids suspended in gas, into the atmosphere. The Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 produced the largest sulfur oxide cloud this century and reduced mean global temperatures by one degree centigrade.

The Fort Sumner study is an effort at geoengineering our way out of human-induced climate change. By using large scale technosolutions scientists hope to simulate natural processes and find a speedy and cost efficient way to cool the earth. Climate geoengineering falls in one of two categories.

The first category is carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. CDR is not a new idea. Scientists poured nearly 1,000 pounds of iron into a 28 square mile area of ocean surrounding the Galapagos Islands In 1996. Waters formerly barren bloomed green with carbon capturing phytoplankton.

What chance does the sun’s rays have against the perfect storm of volcanic eruptions and aerosol releases. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Harvard plan in New Mexico falls into the SRM category. SRM, or solar radiation management, finds its fullest expression in the SPICE project, or Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering.  SPICE is a UK—funded project in which scientists plan a large-scale release of fine sulfur particles into the stratosphere from a tethered balloon as a way to reduce solar radiation and, thus, global warming.

SPICE, and SRM more broadly, simulates the effects of volcanic eruptions in which sulphuric dioxide and ash particles circulate in the stratosphere in patterns that reduce solar radiation in a magnitude, depending on the eruption, that can impact global climate. While it’s true that large volcanic eruptions lower temperatures in the troposphere, SRM plans conveniently ignore the “other” effects of large-scale volcanic eruptions.

European famine and food riots followed in the wake of the enormous 1815 Indonesian eruption of Tambora, the largest volcanic eruption in more than 10,000 years. Frost was recorded in June of 1816 and killed crops from Connecticut to Maine. Blizzards blanketed farms from Albany to Quebec City. Rivers in Pennsylvania froze in August. The market price of grain rose to equal more than the equivalent of $12 a bushel. The Yangtze flooded and a Chinese food crisis followed. A cholera pandemic that started in the Ganges Delta killed hundreds of thousands in a slow march from the Bay of Bengal to the Baltic Sea.

The Indonesian archipelago exploded again in 1883 when a volcano on the uninhabited island of Krakatoa started hissing in May and erupted in August in a blast that sent most of the northern half of the island 25 kilometers into the sky. It was the largest explosion in recorded human history. Walls of water battered the Sunda straits. Dutch colonialists estimated that tsunamis washed nearly 40,000 to sea.

Skies darkened worldwide and reports of unusual fiery orange sunsets persisted for years. Norwegian painter Edvard Munch wrote in his diary of “clouds turning blood red.”

The red sky in Munch’s “The Scream” was reportedly inspired by post-Krakatoa Norwegian sunsets

Krakatoa reduced global mean temperatures in 1884 by nearly 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Seeding the sky with sulphur seems like a silly scheme, particularly given this history of volcanic misery. Who could possibly pursue such a puerile plan? Anyone paying attention, that’s who. Consider the state of climate change politics.

Christopher Field, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institute for Science, testified before the U.S. Senate’s environment and public works committee last week. “It is critical to understand,” he told the committee, “that the link between climate change and the kinds of extremes that lead to disaster is clear.”

The committee couldn’t care less. Bernie Sanders used the occasion to bait Oklahoma climate change denier James Inhofe, who used the occasion to bait climate change ignorer Barack Obama. While Inhofe has perfected the art of climate denying, he’s a bit of a climate Cassandra when it comes to his take on the Obama administration. In a speech last week Inhofe asked, “When was the last time anyone heard President Obama or the Democrats mention global warming? In fact, their campaign has failed so miserably that President Obama, running for reelection, is pretending to support oil and gas to gain votes. The irony is that the President who came into office promising to slow the rise of the oceans has presided over the complete collapse of the global warming movement.”

Inhofe’s right. Climate change has somehow become, it seems, the third rail of American politics, despite the fact that the science is finally winning over the hardcore skeptics. Earth has warmed by nearly two degrees Centigrade over the past 250 years and “humans are almost entirely the cause.” This is a conclusion that comes from a UC Berkeley study funded and run by climate change skeptics. Bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers, the recent study compared nearly 15 million land temperature observations from more than 40,000 sites worldwide dating back to 1753. “We were not expecting this,” admitted Glenn Beck buddy and lead investigator Richard Muller, a self-promoting Berkeley physicist and notorious climate change skeptic, “but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds.”

Let’s hope the changed minds change the politics. If not, get used to strange sulphur seeded sunsets in New Mexico. And cross your fingers.

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