NASA researchers and scientists are discussing rapid-response efforts in Bali to take advantage of a rare event — and potentially save the world from climate change.
NASA hopes to take advantage of the island’s erupting volcano — Mount Agung — to study the effects the belching beast has on Earth. They hope that by tracking Mount Agung’s eruption, they’ll be able to learn more about how chemicals released into the atmosphere might be used to fight climate change.
After Mount Agung woke up and began erupting at the end of November, it has been consistently pouring steam and gas into the atmosphere. This is pretty typical though some volcanoes are so powerful they can cause what is known as a “volcanic winter” that stretches near and far after they erupt.
The biggest volcano eruption in recorded history occurred at Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It caused the “The Year Without a Summer,” spreading snow to Albany, New York, in June of the following next year. It destroyed crops, people starved, and apparently inspired Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein.”
For researchers, Agung could be their chance to figure out just how volcanoes affect the climate like Mount Tambora did.
The research into Agung began with a ten-hour flight away from Agung, when a volcano in the Philippines erupted in a big way in 1991. Scientists had picked up the trend during a smaller scale eruption in 1982 of the El Chichon volcano in Mexico, but nothing quite like what they saw at Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippine, dubbed the biggest eruption of the 20th century.
Spewing a cubic mile of rock and ash into the air and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, not only was the eruption of Mount Pinatubo devastating for the communities nearby, the huge quantities of ejected gases affected our entire planet.
When Pinatubo erupted the huge amounts of gas had nowhere to go except to spread across the globe. In doing so, a chemical reaction occurred, when the gas combined with water vapor to create tiny “supercooled” droplets known as aerosol, that in turn reflected and scattered sunlight away from Earth.
The large quantities of aerosol reflected enough light away from the Earth that the average global temperature dropped by one-degree Fahrenheit for a number of years.
Eruptions like these, according to The New York Times, are Earth’s natural climate influencers. Scientists are hoping they can take advantage of these eruptions to study the next big event — and potentially save the planet from a series of cataclysmic events using geoengineering. The Times describes geoengineering as “intervening in the atmosphere to deliberately cool the planet.”
Vice says it is “seen by some as a distraction from the real challenge of climate change in much of the scientific community,” yet even the UN has suggested that the science has merit.
In theory, geoengineers would spray chemicals into the stratosphere, mimicking what happens when volcanos erupt, in order to reverse global warming.
Mount Agung’s eruptions bear similar trademarks to Pinatubo which is why NASA is hoping to send balloons into the air fitted with gadgets to measure the effects of the volcanic eruption on the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA hopes to study the effects for years to come.
If Agung was to blow again with a similar fury to Pinatubo’s 1963 eruption, it could pump enough sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to have a significant cooling effect and temporarily damage the ozone layer.
But the issue for experts attempting to map out a possible eruption timeline in Bali is the fact that no one really knows when the giant, rumbling volcano will blow. Or how much gas will be sent into the sky.
It could be in the next ten minutes for all we know. Or the next hour. It could be not at all.
NASA officials are playing down “the benefits to the study of geoengineering of a volcano-research program”, according to The Times, and “some scientists and policymakers have begun to argue for limited direct research into geoengineering concepts to better understand their potential as well as risks, and be better prepared should global warming reach a point where some kind of emergency action were deemed necessary.”
Alan Robock, a Rutgers University researcher who models the effects of eruptions and who has been involved in discussions about the rapid-response project told The Times that though it’s hard to predict, whether it’s Mount Agung or not, an eruption is inevitable.
“It’ll probably be one you’ve never heard of,” he said.
Whether humankind can play God with the atmosphere though, is not quite as clear.
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