Want To Fight Global Warming? Use An Asteroid

By Amir Khan on October 1, 2012 9:50 AM EDT

Asteroid
This composite image shows the comparative sizes of eight asteroids. (Photo: NASA)

As the consequences of global warming and climate change become more apparent, researchers are looking for novel ways to offset the potentially devastating effects. But one new suggestion is really out there -- in space, that is.

To fight off global warming, researchers in Scotland recommend using a giant dust cloud blasted off an asteroid to reduce the amount of sun that reaches the planet. The team says that reducing the amount of solar radiation that reaches the planet by slightly less than 2 percent, the expected 3.6 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures could be offset.

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"A 1.7 percent reduction is very small and will hardly be noticeable on Earth," Russell Bewick, study author and a space scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, told LiveScience. "People sometimes get the idea of giant screens blocking the entire sun. This is not the case ... as [the device] is constantly between the sun and the Earth, it acts merely as a very light shade or filter."

The researchers suggest anchoring an asteroid at Lagrange point L1, a point four times the distance from the Earth to the moon where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun cancel out. By doing so, an asteroid could stay near Earth and create a large enough dust cloud to reduce some, but not too much, solar radiation.

While the idea may be farfetched, researchers maintain that it is a viable solution. One of the biggest challenges would be testing the idea.

"On the global scale, it is not possible to test because the test would essentially be the real thing, except probably in a diluted form," Bewick told LiveScience. "Climate modeling can be performed, but without some large-scale testing, the results from these models cannot be fully verified."

Safety remains another concern.

"A very large asteroid is a potential threat to Earth, and therefore great care and testing would be required in the implementation of this scenario," Bewick said. "Due to this, the political challenges would probably match the scale of the engineering challenge. Even for the capture of much smaller asteroids, there will likely be reservations from all areas of society, though the risks would be much less."

But while the thought of an asteroid hovering around Earth sounds like a recipe for disaster, or a plot out of a movie, Bewick said "rather than destroying the Earth, it could be used to help mankind."

Bewick said that reducing carbon emissions remains the best way to stop global warming, but creating an asteroid cloud could buy us more time to do so.

"I would like to make it clear that I would never suggest geoengineering in place of reducing our carbon emissions," he said. "[Instead], we can buy time to find a lasting solution to combat Earth's climate change. The dust cloud is not a permanent cure, but it could offset the effects of climate change for a given time to allow slow-acting measures like carbon capture to take effect."

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