Scientists warn geoengineering could disrupt rainfall patterns

By Chelsea Whyte on June 6, 2012 9:34 PM EDT

Volcano
Mimicking volcano eruptions by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could bring down global temperatures, but at what cost? (Photo: NASA)

Geoengineering, or artificially engineering climates, has been a controversial idea that aims to battle the effects of climate change. Concerns over the effects of tinkering with the Earth's ecosystem and insistence that humans should focus on limiting man-made pollutants instead have often been arguments against any intervention into nature's processes.

Now, a team of European scientists finds that a new geoengineering solution could lead to significantly reduced rainfall. They studied models of how a future warmed-up Earth would respond to an artificial reduction in the amount of sunlight reaching the planet's surface.

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Possible techniques to limit the amount of sunlight radiation reaching Earth include mimicking eruptions of large volcanoes by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere and even positioning giant mirrors in space.

But however it's done, the international team found that a reduction in light radiation reaching the Earth's surface would disrupt rainfall on Earth, decreasing it by about 15 percent. And in South America and the Amazon region, rainfall was down 20 percent.

To study what an engineered climate would be like, they created models of Earth that assume that CO2 concentration is four times what it was at preindustrial levels and also take into account lower sunlight radiation.

"A quadrupling of CO2 is at the upper end, but still in the range of what is considered possible at the end of the 21st century," says Hauke Schmidt, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany and lead author of the paper.

The authors say the model isn't meant to give realistic ideas about potential applications of climate engineering, but is meant to show the possible adverse effects that could come of such designed changes to the Earth's climate.  

"Climate engineering cannot be seen as a substitute for a policy pathway of mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions," they said in the study, published in Earth System Dynamics, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union, reports Reuters.

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