Cooling The Earth One Cloud At A Time: How Researchers Are Altering Clouds To Increase Reflectivity

A recent update from researchers on the Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB) Project brings hope to the future of climate change remediation.

Cooling The Earth One Cloud At A Time: How Researchers Are Altering Clouds To Increase Reflectivity

The current surge in environmental awareness has led to technological advancements and sustainable initiatives of immense proportions. What lacked mainstream acceptance as recent as the late 1900s has grown to receive the acknowledgment of governments and large corporations throughout the world. Due largely as a result of the energy and transportation industry, researchers have since sought out remediation techniques to reverse the negative environmental damage resulting in climate change.

Contrary to ships having a rather negative environmental impact as a result of waste, energy usage, and emissions, there are some benefits to have come from this mode of transportation, particularly in the realm of altering clouds. Researchers at the University of Washington, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have since been trying to mimic these unique cloud formations that occur to cool the earth.

The project was initially supposed to begin tests in 2016 but was halted due to funding issues. It wasn’t until 2018 when the team's project caught on, and they received a large donation from Bill Gates-backed fund and have subsequently garnered a total budget of just over $16 million since.

Cloud Formation

Cloud formation occurs naturally when invisible water particles form in the air to create visible droplets. The process happens only when the air reaches over 100% relative humidity, meaning there is an oversaturation of water that will need to condense into another form, such as liquid or vapor.

When clouds form, the individual drops accumulate around microscopic particles, known as condensation nuclei (CCN). The more CCN, the more droplets, resulting in more reflectivity and denser clouds. This marvel is known as the Twomey effect and can result naturally from sea salt or via human-induced activity resulting in soot, dust, and bacteria.

The Project's Scope

Known commonly as "ship tracks," the particulate emissions from the ship are also a type of CCN and can result in brighter clouds that can reflect the sun away from the earth. MCB will aim to effectively simulate the process of inserting CCN -via saltwater- into the air to encourage highly reflective clouds.

The team is experimenting on whether incorporating more sea salt into low-lying stratocumulus clouds, specifically, would aid in a cooling effect similar to that seen with "ship tracks." The plan would be to spray seawater into the sky from aboard ships. Their update states that they "expect that the sprayed seawater would instantly dry in the air and form tiny particles of salt, which would rise to the cloud layer via convection and act as seeds for cloud droplets.

These generated particles would be much smaller than the particles from crashing waves, so there would be only a small relative increase in sea salt mass in the atmosphere. The goal would be to produce clouds that are slightly brighter (by 5 to 10 percent) and possibly longer lasting than typical clouds, resulting in more sunlight being reflected back to space."

This research falls under the realm of Solar Climate Intervention, the process of utilizing reflective surfaces to redirect the sun's strong rays from the earth. In the case of this project, the sun would reflect off of the artificially created clouds and back into the atmosphere.

Despite Solar Climate Intervention being a promising route for climate change remediation, the researchers specify that it doesn't remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, and therefore isn't a complete solution to climate change. There will still need to be a massive shift toward sustainable initiatives via regulations, policies, and consumer habits.

Currently, the information that we do have doesn't suggest any negative ramifications as a result of redirecting the sun into space. However, this is something that will be better understood as time -and the project- progresses.

That said, if the project were to be successful, there would be a significant beneficial outcome. The researchers suggest that they see various advantages since the main source of the project, seawater is abundant, eco-friendly, and cost-effective. That used seawater would also eventually find its way back to the sea as a result of the water cycle. The project will save additional energy, waste, and cost, seeing as it will rely on boats rather than aircraft.

Initial studies have aided the team in determining the ideal particle size and the proper number of particles needed to boost the cloud's reflectivity properties, although there are still some discrepancies that remain. Perhaps two of the more prominent being finding a less energy-intensive way to create the saltwater spray and measuring the initial size distribution of the saltwater droplets.

To date, the team has worked amply to address these discrepancies and seems to be on the right path to success. Though the update states that they are unsure of the extent that this reach will aid in climate change remediation, they seem to remain hopeful. The team has recently submitted their experimental plans to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for review and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for open publication.

Only time will tell what the outcome of this experiment will yield. For now, the team is confident of their current findings, and the future of climate change remediation is well along the path to success.

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