Not So Hot

niagara-falls-frozen-solid1-650x482It takes a really cold winter to freeze Niagara Falls. The result is a spectacular alien landscape that looks like a postcard from another planet, a trickle of water enveloped by a huge promontory of icy tentacles reaching down to building-sized boulders of frozen water. Greetings from Neptune, Wish You Were Here!

So this is a good time to have a chat about global warming, right?

Like the Yankees’ beleaguered Alex Rodriguez– hoping we wouldn’t make a big deal out of his faxed-in handwritten apology for using PEDs–some of the nation’s top scientists peeked out of their labs recently and revealed the latest plan to combat the phenomenon of global warming. The National Science Foundation, the top U.S. research advisory board, wants to prepare us for Plan B.

What, you don’t remember Plan A? Dressed up as a stimulus-funded experiment during the Great Recession, Plan A called for carbon sequestration. That’s a fancy term for capturing greenhouse gases as they spew out of power-plant smokestacks and then injecting these fumes into the crust of the Earth.

Great idea, if you’ve got about $5 trillion to spare over the next decade and enough depleted oilfields and salt mines to store about 10 billion cubic metric tons of methane and coal gases (and the approval from the people living above these underground caves). A couple of small pilot projects actually got started before plunging energy prices injected a healthy dose of economic reality into this hollow scheme and pretty much put an end to it.

So now comes Plan B, rolled out under the harmless-sounding rubric of “geoengineering.” File this one under Hail Mary, next to the clip of Doug Flutie closing his eyes and chucking a pigskin into an end zone filled with gridiron defenders.

Here’s the gist of it: our scientists want to shoot millions of tons of sulfates into the upper atmosphere, creating a layer of haze around the Earth that would mimic the effect of a dozen Vesuvius-sized volcanic eruptions happening simultaneously. Or perhaps an all-out nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, without the radiation.

The idea, if that’s what you want to call it, is to create a manmade sunscreen that would convert the stratosphere into the average rush-hour haze in Beijing or New Delhi, the two most polluted cities on the planet. Oh, and just for good measure, the nation’s leading eggheads also propose to “fertilize” the oceans by dumping tons of iron over the sides of ships, this to combat the gradual acidification that now threatens the extinction of most sea life. Hey, if this doesn’t work, at least the red snapper will be a lot redder before they disappear.

Yes, these people are serious. Led by researchers from the U.S. and the U.K., a gathering of about 150 of the world’s leading scientists is scheduled to take place in Monterey, CA in March. At the top of their agenda is the development of guidelines for “large-scale” field tests of proposed geoengineering techniques, including the global mega-sulfate spew. The big conference will coincide with congressional and parliamentary hearings in Washington and London on the scientific, engineering, ethical, economic and governance aspects of geoengineering.

The ethical part of these hearings should be interesting. According to recent reports, a few influential scientists are vocally raising caution flags in the rush to experiment on the atmosphere. A committee of the National Research Council recently issued a two-volume report recommending that the federal government fund a research program into geoengineering. But here’s what the committee chairwoman, Marcia McNutt, told the Associated Press when she released the report:

“This is downright scary. If this is our Hail Mary, what a scary, scary place we are in.”

Ms. McNutt sounds perfectly sane to us (sorry, we couldn’t resist). Scary, scary place indeed.

Other researchers have pointed out that even relatively small-scale geoengineering experiments could have unintended consequences, like “boundary issues.” In other words, if you turn the air over Dallas into a gloomy morning in New Delhi and the wind carries your sulfate cloud over Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break…well, you get the picture.

The scientists have chosen a symbolic venue for their international brain-fest, the Asilomar conference center in Monterey, which in the 1970s hosted an international think session on the implications of rapid advances in recombinant DNA research. That conclave reached the conclusion that introducing cheetah DNA into humans to see if we could lower the world record for running 100 meters was probably a bad idea. And as for cloning, well, nobody cares if there are some identical sheep running around, but does anybody really want an extra Donald Trump?

Are we suggesting that these geniuses deliberately picked the middle of the coldest winter of the new century to poke their heads out of an ice hole and whisper “fire!” on a crowded planet?

Of course we are. These are the same courageous people who haven’t found the guts to tell us that not only is climate change upon is, but even the most objective projections strongly indicate it is now irreversible. We’ve already geoengineered the atmosphere with 150 years of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Plan B is exactly what it sounds like: a desperate, last-ditch, close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best shot in the dark.

But enough of this gloom and doom. As you know, we always try to end our posts on a hopeful note, so here goes:

Mars One, a Dutch non-profit, announced this week that it’s narrowing the field of applicants for a one-way trip to Mars, tentatively set for 2024. The group plans to pick 24 lucky explorers who will take the seven-month space voyage to the Red Planet and set up a colony there. They won’t come back.

After a few years of geoengineering, we suspect the appeal of living on a smog-free planet will increase exponentially. If the cable TV folks can figure out how to bounce ESPN’s signal off Mars, count us in.