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A new study shows how shooting seawater into the clouds could slow global warming.


(Illustration: John MacNeill)
January 05, 2015 By Padma Nagappan

Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

It’s one of those ideas that seems too far-fetched to be taken seriously: Deploy a fleet of 1,500 ships across the globe to blast seawater into the sky to make clouds brighter so they reflect more sunlight into space. Why? The deflected radiation would slow global warming—in theory.

Calledmarine cloud brightening,” the geo-engineering scheme proposed by scientists Stephen Salter and John Latham has been bandied about among academic journals for the past 15 years. 

But it seemed impossible to put into practice, as it would cost more than $3 billion just to build the ships. 

Also, shooting salt particles into the clouds would consume far too much energy to be practical.

Now atmospheric scientists at the University of Manchester, in England, think they’ve found an energy-efficient way to brighten clouds. 

In a paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, lead author Paul Connolly describes how a technology called the Rayleigh jet would be the most effective way to spray seawater into the sky.

A century ago, Lord Rayleigh, an English baron, explained how a stream of liquid would break down into tiny droplets when sprayed into the atmosphere, leaving a residue of salt particles. 

Salter had proposed using silicon wafers to create the tiny nozzles to spray seawater. Connolly’s team focused on calculating how much energy would be needed to create the pressure to pump the water through the nozzles.

Its calculations show that the ships would need 13 megawatts of power on board to generate the Raleigh jets—far more energy-efficient than the other techniques.

“This method of powering the ships will cost about $50 million, which is separate from the cost of building and outfitting the ships,” Connolly said.

“By the end of this century, we think cloud brightening can offset whatever increase in temperature there would be, if we were to carry on as we were with no changes,” he said.

“I’m not saying we should do this, because we don’t know if seeding clouds is going to create other problems,” noted Connolly.

“What this research is doing is just looking into the possibilities—just in case.”

For instance, one great unknown is whether cloud brightening would change global wind and rain patterns. 

“We wouldn’t want to do this and find we might cut off the Indian or Australian monsoon, because then we could affect millions of people who depend on the monsoon as a source of water,” Connolly said.

Like other atmospheric scientists, Connolly thinks that a massive investment in cloud brightening is worth it but mostly as a stopgap measure to slow climate change.

There’s one big catch: The ships would need to spray continuously or the benefits would disappear, because the salt particles only last two to three days.

“It would be a huge undertaking,” Connolly said. 

“But it doesn’t do much about the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so what we really need to do is move to a low-carbon society.”

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