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Bill Gates Funds Seawater-Spraying Cloud Machines 403

Posted by Soulskill
from the blue-sky-of-death dept.
lucidkoan writes "Environmentalists have long argued about whether geoengineering (using technology to alter the climate) is a good way to tackle climate change. But the tactic has some heavy hitters on its side, including Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder recently announced plans to invest $300,000 into research for machines that suck up seawater and spray it into the air, seeding white clouds that reflect rays of sunlight away from Earth. The machines, developed by a San Francisco-based research group called Silver Lining, turn seawater into tiny particles that can be shot up over 3,000 feet in the air. The particles increase the density of clouds by increasing the amount of nuclei contained within."
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Bill Gates Funds Seawater-Spraying Cloud Machines

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  • by biryokumaru (822262) <> on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:44PM (#32162372)
    I understand that Dr Horrible is supplying the wonderflonium required for the machines to operate.
  • by wonkavader (605434) on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:50PM (#32162464)

    The article says that 3 ships is nothing. We need $7 billion worth of ships to stop the temperature from increasing.

    WHAT? We can stop warming in its tracks for just $7 billion? That's very little money.

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:51PM (#32162472) Journal
    Here in the west USA, we have long droughts. We count on reservoirs having enough water. The problem is that we have also been depending for far too long on aquifers. So, we regularly talk about pipelines. Well, there is ZERO chance that an economical large pipeline can be developed. HOWEVER, this has the ability to put a lot more moisture in the air. When it is known that a cold front is going to hit an area, then we simply bump up the amount of moisture in the air. It will mean LARGE snow dumps, but that is needed. It will allow us to fill the aquifers as well as reservoirs.

    Generally, I think that Gates is causing more issues than solving (trying to stop hurricanes is a HORRIBLE mistake; it brings up nutrients from deep down; likewise, killing mosquitoes may actually stop evolution), but this one will help bring fresh water throughout the world as well as temporaly help with the global warming issues until we switch off of fossil fuels. Interestingly, if China, the worlds largest polluter of nearly everything, was to clean up their h2so4, then it would raise global temps quickly. With the clouds, it allows us to not worry about temps, while we go back to encouraging all nations to clean up their act.
  • Seems stupid... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Antony T Curtis (89990) on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:56PM (#32162548) Homepage Journal

    The idea that spraying some water 3000ft into the air in the hopes that it will aid cloud formation seems ... stupid.

    3000ft isn't very far and if there isn't enough convection, it isn't going to go up much further... The colder denser air would descend and stay near the ground. This idea sounds about as smart as setting up thousands of Van de Graaff generators all over town, hoping that the ozone generated would plug the ozone hole.

    I think a much simpler solution would be this:

    1. Cover a large area, perhaps the area of 10 football pitches, with good old fashioned black tarmac.
    2. Have a simple sprinkler system, not too dissimilar to a lawn sprinkler system, covering the entire area.
    3. When the sun shines, turn on the water.
    4. Hopefully, the large area, heated by the sun, will cause enough convection to carry the water vapour up through the atmosphere, where it can form clouds.

    There is a problem with salt buildup if using seawater, changing the albino of the tarmac ... but I'm guessing that if there is some form of drainage system in place where slightly saltier water could drain away, that should suffice.

  • Re:What could (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ao_42 (1808558) on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:56PM (#32162554)
    Water vapor isn't considered to have much radiative warming potential mainly because the Earth's emission spectrum is already saturated at the wavelengths at which water absorbs (See Houghton's Global Physical Climatology text for a detailed discussion). -- from a student in meteorology & climatology at Cornell
  • Re:What could (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Monday May 10, 2010 @05:56PM (#32162556)

    Water vapor concentration depends directly on the temperature of the air, and has a life cycle of about 2 weeks. In other words, it is not part of a positive feedback loop. If you pump too much into the air, it just rains out. Once the sun goes down, water vapor condensates out.

    You can make Global Warming worse by adding water vapor to the air, but if enough sunlight gets reflected back out through cloud formation, it's a good deal. The cost of putting enough water into the air though.... is a different matter. Not sure if that's a cost-effective way of going about it.

  • Operational cost (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wonkavader (605434) on Monday May 10, 2010 @06:01PM (#32162612)

    Sorry, responding to my own post: I wonder what the operational cost would be for this. What fuel are these things supposed to use? Shoving all that water into the air would take a crapload of power.

    They can't take fossil fuels -- that would be a logistics issue, and would be counter-productive (though possibly still the most efficient approach).

    I have this image of 3000 nuclear-powered boats, and I wonder what the mean-time between failures on such a system would be.

  • Dynamical responses (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ao_42 (1808558) on Monday May 10, 2010 @06:08PM (#32162726)
    I'm publishing a paper quite soon, hopefully, which examines cloud whitening and the dynamical responses. Previous researchers (eg Jones et al 2009, Rasch et al 2010) have examined the potential surface response, which gives a fairly rosy picture. I found that when you look more closely at the dynamical responses in the atmosphere, there are significant changes associated with this kind of geoengineering, including possible enhancement of Atlantic hurricanes. I hope Gates reads the literature on this before undertaking the proposed course of action. -- from a student in meteorology & climatology at Cornell University. Thesis work performed at Princeton University & Cornell, presented at AMS conference in January.
  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Monday May 10, 2010 @06:13PM (#32162788) Journal

    They are talking about spraying SALT water into the air. Normally when clouds form it comes from normally evaporating water that leaves the salt behind. That is the reason the dead sea is so salty and for that matter how salt planes form.

    So, what does this system mean for salt in the rain? I seem to remember that to make a point you tear down your enemies city, plow the ground and sow it with salt so that everyone gets the point. Salt and agriculture don't mix.

    It is possible that the salt will fall down quickly into the ocean, but this is not mentioned. In fact the article is very light on the details. How does it shoot water so high, how much energy does it cost? What is going to happen to our planet when it is covered in clouds? More clouds might mean more rain, rain isn't always good. Or it might fall back as snow and be locked up for millenia on a cooling planet with ever saltier seas.

    I also get the feeling that it is indeed very cheap. Sea going vessels ain't cheap especially if they have to run on auto on the ocean. Manning so many vessels alone would cost a fortune alone. 3 vessels with 300.000? You can barely get a sail boat, a small one.

    And a move along this path would give the US even less reason to cut its emissions, 7 billion to curb todays emission, but how much if that keeps on going? It reminds me of the futurama episode where the problem of global warming is solved FOREVER by dropping an ever larger ice-cube into the ocean. Is Bill Gates under the impression that Futurama is a howto guide?

  • Re:What could (Score:3, Interesting)

    by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:32PM (#32163598)
    "On the third hand (where did that come from?), we'd need to keep the clouds up (assuming the cool us) until the CO2 is flushed from the atmosphere in 150 years."

    I would assume that since H2O+CO2 makes carbonic acid (H2CO3, or acid rain), that letting the clouds come back down would flush the CO2 out faster than leaving them up.
  • Re:What could (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jasonwc (939262) on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:16PM (#32164408)

    This idea is discussed more thoroughly in Steve Levitt's book, SuperFreakonomics. The idea apparently thought up by several individuals in a patent-holding company called Intellectual Ventures (IV) which has a number of noteworthy academics and scientists. I suggest you read more about the idea before rejecting it. It is not surprising that Bill Gates has invested in the idea given that the creator of Intellectual Ventures was a high-level executive at Microsoft, and friends with Bill Gates. Gates has invested in several other of IV's projects - all of which seem a bit crazy at first.

  • Re:What could (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmythe.jwsmythe@com> on Monday May 10, 2010 @09:42PM (#32164562) Homepage Journal

        I actually had a similar idea a while back, which would be more eco-friendly as you're suggesting. It would involve buoys and black plastic sheets. The sheets would sit maybe 1" under the water, to encourage evaporation. If the sheets were spread out, they wouldn't cause damage to the ecosystem below. So, maybe 1% coverage over 100 square miles is 1 square mile of increased evaporation and therefore more clouds and rain.

        It takes a lot for evaporation to become a cloud though. It may be that all that would be created is just raised humidity in the area.

  • You're not too far off to be skeptical. I took a cloud physics course last semester. Cloud droplets form around aerosols - particles with such a low mass/volume ratio that they can remain suspended in the air.

    How do they remain suspended in te air? They're so small that the force of gravity is about equal to the air resistance they encounter. I have absolutely no idea how you can turn sea water into a super-fine mist, and then shoot it 3,000' into the air. For it to stay there, it has to have massive air resistance. That's antithetical to shooting it there in the first place.

    Not to mention my previous post about the large uncertainty in modeling cloud formation, and the even larger one in climate simulations, where clouds can both warm AND cool the earth, depending on a hundred different things.

    I think the absurd dollar figures quoted are the icing on the cake.
  • Re:What could (Score:5, Interesting)

    Heh, the best part is that we might be trapping more heat than we're reflecting...

    I'm doing a PhD in a climate area now, and the science is DEFINITELY not out on whether increased clouds hurt or help us. It depends on the height, location, water content, droplet size.....

    But I agree with Idiomatick below - it's clear that we're into at least 40 years of warming, even if we turned off every last CO2 source today! As I posted above, we're on the ride, while we're still building the track ahead of us. The first 40+ years of the ride has been completed. What the next 80, 120, 160 years looks like is still a bit up in the air. However, it's hotter, with climate like we humans have never seen since we invented writing.

    Our last chance to keep our climate like the last 10-15k yrs is to geo-engineer. Our only chance to get off this ride in the next 40 years is to put all our chips on 00 and spin the wheel. They aren't good odds, for sure....
  • Re:What could (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Shihar (153932) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:05AM (#32165950)

    First, the fun thing this and nearly all of the serious geoengineer proposals that I have seen is that they are easily turned off. If there is some horrible consequence to making the ocean a little more cloudy? Ok... turn them off. We are already geoengineering through industrial pollutants. We might as well geoengineer some more to try and fix the problems. The path to using this techs is pretty clear. Start small, work up to the effect you want, turn it off if you don't like where it is going.

    As far as "masking" the problem, what is wrong with that? So we need to run a bunch of sprinklers in the ocean. Is it cheaper than the substantial costs of reducing CO2 output now? If it is, then we should seriously think about doing it. That isn't to say that we shouldn't work on removing CO2 in a more permanent way or work on emitting less, but it could be a hell of a lot cheaper and political far more feasible than the alternative. Do you have to maintain these and replace them? Sure, but that goes with almost any technology. It isn't like the fact that power plants wear out stop us from building an electrical grid. You just include replacement in the cost. It is hardly an insurmountable problem.

    If you really believe that climageddon is upon us, geoengineering really is shaping up to be the only way to level off the warming. The cost to reduce CO2 emissions now at levels high enough to stop global warming are through the roof. The political cost is even higher (if not utterly unpayable). We are going to fail at reducing CO2 emissions in the short term. Why not deploy technology to counteract our unintentional geoengineering at a fraction of the cost of "fixing" the problem. Don't stop working on the problem, just give the world some breathing room. Transitioning over to clean and renewable energy is the direction we want to go regardless, making it so that we need to make the transition in a few generations rather than a few years results in a drastically reduced cost.

    Frankly, I think that geoengineering makes hardcore environmentalist pissy because it snatches away the best issue that environmentalist movement has had in decades. When it comes down to it, reducing CO2 emission with today's technology boils down to reduced consumption and energy usage. You can tie those two things to pretty much anything in the environmentalist cause. Global warming makes an good proxy in any fight over the environmental. Arguing that coal is bad because it pumps out toxic crap in the PPM range is a very hard argument to make to your average uneducated dolt. Simply declaring coal is a going to cause climageddon on the other hand is much much easier to understand and get worked up over.

  • by Shihar (153932) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @02:30AM (#32166026)

    I would be pretty shocked if the answers if the smart folks who thought this up and got handed a large money sack did not already answer most of your questions, but I can probably guess the answers to your concerns.

    If the salt hangs in the air for any length of time in any concentration... do it some place not near land. In fact, from all I have read on geoengineering, you want to do your work in the poles, so even if the salt hangs, it is a moot point. We also have a few thousands miles of Pacific with nothing in it to dump salt into.

    As far as the price, the price is peanuts compared to turning off CO2 production. If you believe some of the climate models we are already fucked and in for 40 years of warming even if all of the man made CO2 stopped tomorrow. If that is the case, the ONLY answer is geoengineering. The cost of reducing CO2 is mind numbing. CO2 cost is basically energy cost, which means that any cost imposed is going to hit literally everything in the world wide economy. It makes EVERYTHING more expensive to tackle CO2. 7 billion is absolutely nothing. Hell, it could go up by 7 billion every single year, and it would still cost nothing in the grand scheme of things. Geoengineering is almost certainly cheaper than reducing worldwide energy consumption. Even if it cost a trillion dollars a year to keep the earth stable, that would still be peanuts compared to the cost of reducing CO2 to zero.

    CO2 is an issue we are going to tackle eventually. We cant use fossil fuels forever. The problem is that tackling it aggressively now is far more expensive than in the future. Given time, it is inevitable that renewable energy will improve and win out. If global warming is your fear, geoengineering is really the only rational response. We can't muster the world wide political will to reduce CO2 output, even if we could the cost would be devastating, and we would STILL be fucked because it is already too late.

  •     I would think such a thing may be possible. It shouldn't require any MS code at all. I'm not quite sure how the juggling act would go between filesystems, unless you made a filesystem file and ran the OS from there, but accessed the old files with something like ntfs-3g. You could probably do it using a static compiled binary under cygwin. Since it's static, it should be portable to target machines. Then you could do something like...

        cd /
        dd if=/dev/zero of=/linux_filesystem bs=1024 count=100000
        mkdir /linux
        mke2fs -j /linux_filesystem
        mount /linux_filesystem /linux
        wget []
        cd linux
        tar xvpzf ../full_os.tar.gz ./bin/configure_os

        Inside full_os.tar.gz, the desktop, "My Documents", etc, could be linked to the old NTFS partition. No actual damage would have been done other than rewriting the MBR with a bit of initrd black magic to mount up the virtual filesystem as root, with every driver that could be run into, or at least a complete suite of network drivers and the OS could fix the rest at boot time.

        full_os.tar.gz would have to be already fully customized to have the appearance of the infected host machine, so you'd likely have copies for WinXP, Win2k, WinVista, and Win7.

        configure_os would need to read the existing network environment to either set the IP's static, or allow DHCP to handle it, depending on the users existing configuration.

        Of course, by pulling down the file with wget, that opens up a whole can of worms. Now, if it had an include Bittorrent client, you could just use an existing torrent file (bundled within) and pull the OS file from peers, which would be much faster if it actually spread into the wild. I can't imagine any server (or server farm) would appreciate 1,000,000 simultaneous users downloading a full Linux install, even if gzipped. But, if every machine kept seeding, it would make the whole operation very smooth. :)

        It would be funny if people discovered Linux really is a worthwhile OS for their needs, and they've just been afraid to use it. That's 99% of the folks out there. (The remaining 1% run Windows-only apps, who would be frustrated).

        I haven't thought too much about this, and it is 2:30am, so there are plenty of implausible holes in that idea. And like I said before, there's no way I'd actually do it, since I don't really like jail time.

  • Re:What could (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Aceticon (140883) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @08:23AM (#32167676)

    They're planning on atomizing sea water into the air.

    Sea-water has salt in it.

    A high salt content makes agricultural land unfertile.

    Frequent salty rains over a land area would slowly increase the salt levels in that area, effectivelly poisoning the land.

    So they won't be doing it close to land at at all: it will be done in the middle of the ocean where all that salt will simple fall down to the ocean again. Lots of clouds to reflect the sunlight back into space work just as well (if not beter) over the ocean than over land.

  • Re:What could (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mcguiver (898268) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 @10:57AM (#32169378)
    Part of the advantage of spraying the salt water into the air is that the salt acts as nucleation sites for raindrops to form. Thus you get cloud cover to block the incoming sun plus you decrease the energy needed to precipitate the water back out of the air. I am against climate engineering, but I think that this is one of the better climate engineering ideas proposed.
  • Re:What could (Score:4, Interesting)

    We're sure that CO2 produces warming for a couple of reasons:

    1)All laboratory experiments show this.
    2) All paleoclimate records show this. (To be fair, there are a ton of feedbacks in the system, but historical warm periods are very closely correlated with very high levels of CO2.)
    3) All current observations show a very close correlation between CO2 and global temperature. In fact, there is nothing else that comes anywhere close to that correlation.
    4) With reasonable parameters in models, previous CO2 data very closely predicts current temperatures and temperature distributions.

    From a climate science standpoint, there is absolutely no doubt that increased CO2 leads to increased temperatures. Hell, even from a physics standpoint there's no question about it. In fact, the basic physics and chemistry aren't overly hard. Where the questions lie is in how the earth system as a whole responds to increased temperatures.

    Clouds are perhaps the #1 area of uncertainty at the moment. Venus is scorching hot because of cloud cover and a strong greenhouse effect. Hotter on average than Mercury, which is a lot closer to the sun. Yet Mars is a frozen wasteland with no appreciable greenhouse effect or clouds. From ground and satellite observations we can see that, on average, low, thick clouds reflect more sun than they trap heat, and cause a net cooling. High, thin clouds trap more heat than they reflect, causing net warming.

    But we lack data on "paleoclouds" - nobody really knows if a warmer planet leads to more low clouds or more high clouds. Most of the physics seems to indicate more clouds, (ala Venus) and paleoclimate records show wet periods corresponded with warm periods, and dry periods with cool periods.

    I take a fair bit of issue with your last statement. You don't seem to know much about computational climate models. The entire point is to parametrize physical processes that are too computationally demanding to actually model. We can't model every raindrop, so we model net amounts based on parametrizations which agree with what we see. For instance, many model parametrizations are based on NCEP reanalysis data. It's freely available data, collected from a vast array of measurement devices. Pressure, temperature, humidity, winds, evaporation, precipitation, incoming solar, albedo, etc. The parametrizations we make are an aggreate of real data and pretty well known physical properties.

    The big issues are the things we have no data for. "Paleoclouds", eg. Nobody knows what clouds were like 1 million years ago. We can estimate, based on what we know, but it's just a guess. Even something as simple as albedo is tricky. When we lose permafrost, the albedo of the poles changes. But what does it change to? Obviously it lowers, but the actual value depends on the types and distribution of plants that grow there. We've just got to guess at that. Do these uncertainties mean that global warming isn't happening? Not at all. It just means that the spread of predictions is that much larger.

    One key thing we do know: The deep ocean has about a 1000 year circulation. We can trace the age of the ocean by testing for things like man-made nuclear particles and CFCs, among other things. When we examine 50 year old and newer water vs hundreds of years old water, the CO2 content of the new water is enormously higher. In fact, it looks like the ocean has taken up almost 50% of the CO2 we produced so far. As any chemist, physicist, or anyone who's opened a warm soda can tell you, warm liquids hold less gas. This potential slowdown of our major carbon sink, combined with our increasing emissions will likely have profound effects on future climate, above and beyond what's currently being modeled.

    P.S. The IPCC models are a decade old. They only are using very well established, well reviewed models that have stood the test of time. The newer, more complete, less parametrized, and significantly more complicated models show a spread around the IPCC models. However, the bulk are above IPCC predictions for temperature. It doesn't help that we're following the worst-case IPCC emission scenario.

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Mother Nature cannot be fooled. -- R.P. Feynman