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Issue 12, 2011
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Can we test geoengineering?

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Solar radiation management (SRM), a form of geoengineering, might be used to offset some fraction of the anthropogenic radiative forcing of climate as a means to reduce climate change, but the risks and effectiveness of SRM are uncertain. We examine the possibility of testing SRM through sub-scale deployment as a means to test models of climate response to SRM and explore risks prior to full-scale implementation. Contrary to some claims, this could provide meaningful tests of the climate's response to SRM within a decade. We use idealized simulations with the HadCM3L general circulation model (GCM) to estimate the response to SRM and signal-to-noise ratio for global-scale SRM forcing tests, and quantify the trade-offs between duration and intensity of the test and it's ability to make quantitative measurements of the climate's response to SRM forcing. The response at long time-scales would need to be extrapolated from results measured by a short-term test; this can help reduce the uncertainty associated with relatively rapid climate feedbacks, but uncertainties that only manifest at long time-scales can never be resolved by such a test. With this important caveat, the transient climate response may be bounded with 90% confidence to be no more than 1.5 °C higher than it's estimated value, in a single decade test that used roughly 1/10th the radiative forcing perturbation of a CO2-doubling. However, tests could require several decades or longer to obtain accurate response estimates, particularly to understand the response of regional hydrological fields which are critical uncertainties. Some fields, like precipitation over land, have as large a response to short period forcing as to slowly-varying changes. This implies that the ratio of the hydrological to the temperature response that results from a sustained SRM deployment will differ from that of either a short-duration test or that which has been observed to result from large volcanic eruptions.

Graphical abstract: Can we test geoengineering?

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Publication details

The article was received on 03 Mar 2011, accepted on 19 Sep 2011 and first published on 20 Oct 2011

Article type: Paper
DOI: 10.1039/C1EE01256H
Citation: Energy Environ. Sci., 2011,4, 5044-5052
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    Can we test geoengineering?

    D. G. MacMynowski, D. W. Keith, K. Caldeira and H. Shin, Energy Environ. Sci., 2011, 4, 5044
    DOI: 10.1039/C1EE01256H

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