Cost Effective Solutions to Global Warming (Part II)
Can Already Existing Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases be Decreased?
“Victory Gardens in the Sky”
October 31, 2014
NOTE: The private and governmental agencies and projects mentioned in this paper were utilized as examples only. They were chosen due to the cutting edge near-space technology that they are actively developing. There has been no discussion or collaboration with any of the concerns delineated in the paper and their mention in this paper does not imply interest or support. All content was entirely developed by and is solely the responsibility of www.ecoalliances.org.
The past several decades has been marked by acrimonious debate among scientists and politicians as to the reality and seriousness of climate change. The global community has finally reached a consensus that we are now facing very serious climactic challenges as a result of human generated activity. A recent report by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014) increased the alarm about the extent of the problem and events to come if significant action is not taken. The panel concluded that greenhouse gases were “the highest in history” and probably “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years…Without additional mitigation, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.”
Human induced increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are now at levels considered unsafe. There are many proposed possible solutions for decreasing the future generation of greenhouse gases such as decreased reliance on fossil fuels. However, there is little discussion in the literature as to ways to lower elevated greenhouse gases already released in the atmosphere. If we are unable to decrease these already high levels, we will experience significant climactic consequences for many decades to come even with drastic cuts in new emissions. This report proposes a mechanism for decreasing current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases utilizing high altitude balloons and other near-space vehicles as “Victory Gardens in the Sky” in order to metabolize atmospheric CO2 and methane gases.
The proposal is speculative in nature with many logistic, economic and engineering details needing to be addressed in order to determine the feasibility of the project. The paper is therefore being presented as a “seed of an idea” designed for consideration and comment. Whether this “seed” has merit and can have appreciable impact on this extensive problem will have to be determined with discussion and feedback from experts familiar with the technical details and major challenges facing a major project such as this. Since there is scant discussion among climate scientists about ways to diminish current atmospheric greenhouse gas levels it was thought that these ideas should be presented as a starting point. The paper is the second in a series of cost-effective solutions to escalating environmental challenges by www.ecoalliances.org.
Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Levels
Greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are naturally occurring gases that trap energy from the sun and maintain the earth’s average temperature at a temperate 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit). Without these gases the earth would be far too cold for current life forms to exist and they are therefore essential to supporting the planet’s ecosystems.
As has been well reviewed in a companion paper on this site “Victory Trees and Gardens:” A Framework for Action (Korn M, 2014), these gases have been increasingly rapidly and dramatically since the onset of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas is now averaging near 400 parts per million (ppm). As shown in Figure 1 (Scripps Institute of Oceanography, 2014), ice core data samples reveal that levels such as these have not been seen in at least 800,000 years and possibly many millions of years (Tripati et al., 2009).
An effective way to visualize the critical nature of the elevated CO2 levels is to use a car radiator/temperature gauge (Figure 2). Our “car/earth” has been operating at CO2 levels between 200 and 300 for at least 800,000 years. In just the last 250 years, we have increased levels to near 400 and are now in the “red zone.” These levels are continuing to rise at over 1% per year. In order to avoid the serious consequences of operating at dangerously high temperatures, we must take control of the emissions we are generating and continuing to increase. If we neglect the early warning signs of melting glaciers, increasingly frequent and intense storms and increased global temperatures our “car/earth” will began to experience serious operating dysfunction. At some point, when the earth’s buffers are overloaded in capacity the negative consequences will accelerate rapidly. Without decreasing the temperature and causative factors, the passengers will experience many serious negative consequences and ecological challenges as the “car/earth” readjusts to its new higher operating temperature environment.
Decreased fossil fuel use and increased carbon sequestration by reforestation as well as other initiatives are crucial interventions to prevent further increases in greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, even if there was a very significant immediate global decrease in global emissions we would still face problems with global warming and climate change in the coming years. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for long periods of time, with estimates ranging from a century to several thousand years (Eby et al., 2009; Meehl et al., 2007). The current concentrations will continue to exert climactic impact as levels slowly diminish over many years. Alternatively, if we were able to decrease already existing gases in the atmosphere this would be a significant step towards gaining some control over the global warming crisis.
Several investigators have found that microorganisms are present in the atmosphere. They have been found in troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, as well as in the stratosphere, the next highest atmospheric level (DeLeon-Rodriguez et al., 2013; Smith 2011). Although some of these may be biologically active at times, survival and biological activity in the high reaches atmosphere is difficult due to the very cold temperatures as well as the lack of needed nutrients. These microorganisms appear to increase during hurricanes or other storms, swept off the ground by high winds. Some remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time, kept aloft by wind currents. Some form protective biologically inactive spores and are thought to re-activate upon return to earth. Atmospheric transport may be a mechanism by which microorganisms travel outside of their place of origin to distant regions of the planet.
If photosynthesizing microorganisms could be sustained in the atmosphere under more hospitable life sustaining environments, then it is feasible that they could be utilized to naturally convert greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane to harmless gases including oxygen. This would thereby reduce current greenhouse gases levels in the atmosphere. It may be possible to create such a closed growth friendly environment utilizing high altitude balloons and other near-space vehicles.
High Altitude Balloon Technology
There has been rapidly increasing interest and major technological advances in balloon technology and near-space flight in recent years. NASA as well as many for profit companies are already heavily involved in these initiatives and development. The Google “Loon” balloon project, for example, began very modestly with small trials in 2011. The goal was to test out the feasibility of utilizing high altitude balloons to provide Internet services (Figure 3: This and all following Google Loon images taken from the Google Loon site www.google.com/loon). Since a majority of people around the world do not have the necessary ground infrastructure to receive services, this would be an ideal way to connect them inexpensively via an inter-communicating stratospheric balloon network. The technology and capability of the balloons has developed rapidly since the start and they have been kept aloft for up to 120 days, riding stratospheric wind currents as they circle the globe (Figure 4). Coordinated from ground control, the direction as well as altitude of the balloons can be altered via these currents to ensure a distributed network of coverage (Google Blog, 2013). Solar power panels beneath the balloons provide energy and heat for the communication equipment (Figure 5).
“Victory Gardens in the Sky?”
High altitude balloons might be populated with algae or photosynthesizing bacteria –making for a greenhouse gas absorbing environment. Methane might also be changed to harmless elements utilizing methanotrophs (methane metabolizing organisms) that are naturally present in the soil (Hanson and Hanson, 1996). Methane, excreted by cattle and rice production, is a much more potent greenhouse gas compared to CO2. Since the organisms would be sequestered in a portion of the balloon, there would be no risk of release into the atmosphere. Energy from solar panels could be utilized to generate heat for the organisms or power other functions such as concentrating greenhouse gases and water.
The term “Victory Gardens in the Sky” is utilized in order to mesh with the urban reforestation initiative advocated in Part I of this series (Korn M, 2014). The term “Victory Trees and Gardens” was employed in the first paper for the community reforestation initiative that was advocated. This slogan has a very positive active and unifying tone, combating the negativity and alarm that often is associated with the serious climate change debates and warnings. It also recalls the very successful World War I and II “Victory Garden” initiative that urged the public to plant vegetable gardens to support the war effort (Hayden-Smith, 2010).
Although the Google Loon project is focused only on the technological issues of high altitude Internet connectivity, it might be of interest to a corporation like Google to partner with the atmospheric gardens initiative. The balloons could serve a dual purpose, functioning as an atmospheric “Victory Garden” as well as becoming vehicles for Internet transmission coverage (Figure 6). Google is already collaborating with government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on wind data and atmospheric issues as well as NASA. Since the issue of global warming and elevated atmospheric greenhouse gases is such a critical and complex issue, the collaboration of these agencies would make for the powerful technological and scientific force needed to operationalize the initiative. Google is also collaborating on balloon design with Raven Aerostar. Raven has developed super pressure balloons designed for long flight times. They can carry a payload of 6,000 pounds to 130,000 feet (24.6 miles) above sea level and have an interior capacity of up to 40 million cubic feet (http://ravenaerostar.com/solutions/aerospace/super-pressure-balloons). These high payload capacity balloons could carry the large number of microbes and supporting environment needed for high capacity processing of gases.
Challenges for Atmospheric “Victory Gardens” to Overcome
There are many challenges and questions that have to be addressed if atmospheric “gardens” are to be an effective intervention. The Google Loon and other high altitude balloons travel primarily in the stratosphere, out of the way of aircraft traffic. The troposphere is the atmospheric layer closest to the earth and it is here that most of the atmospheric gases are present including water vapor. As one moves further out into space, atmospheric pressures decrease and gases become much less concentrated. In addition the temperature of the stratosphere can be extremely cold (Figure 7), as low as -60 degrees Centigrade. Temperatures increase at higher altitudes in the stratosphere. Some of the challenges that have to be overcome for an extensive of atmospheric Victory Gardens to be a viable solution are the following:network
Low Atmospheric Temperatures & Other Adverse Conditions
Many parts of the stratosphere extremely cold and adequate solar heating would have to be available in order to maintain the temperature at optimum levels for life as well as instrumentation function. There are much higher levels of ultraviolet radiation (UV) higher in the atmosphere and the organisms must be protected from these elements. Horneck and colleagues (2010) found that most organisms were not able to survive in a space environment more than 2 weeks when exposed to damaging UV radiation. Sensitivity to UV effects varied with species as lichen were better able to tolerate the high radiation levels. When shielded from UV radiation however, some organisms remained viable for up to 6 years. Other investigations demonstrated that the common bacteria E-coli were able to tolerate low gravity environments well in low gravity simulation experiments (Baker et al., 2004).
Low Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Concentration
As one ascends into higher levels of the atmosphere all gases including the greenhouse gases decrease in concentration. Large scale transition of CO2 and methane is essential for the project to make a meaningful difference in lowering gas levels. There are several ways to address this critical issue. Concentrating mechanisms could filter the air and specifically select for the greenhouse gases. The balloons, controlled by earth mission control, could be maneuvered to travel in the gas-rich troposphere below for periods of time and then re-ascend into the stratosphere for processing of the gases. One might also utilize a system of smaller drones that are specifically designed to travel into the troposphere for gas concentration and collection. They would then reascend, docking with the large stratospheric Victory Gardens. This would provide the on board microorganisms with the necessary greenhouse gas “fuel” for their continual growth and survival. Some studies (Klaus et al., 1997) have shown an enhancement of bacterial growth and metabolism in decreased gravity environments.
Cost Issues and Technological Innovation
To be effective, a very extensive technologically advanced fleet of balloons and near-space vehicles would have to be developed, launched and maintained. The costs, technical and logistic challenges will be very substantial. The funds needed for such a venture would be very difficult for already financially strapped governments to support alone. A collaborative relationship between government and private corporations would be essential in order to share costs as well as to solve the other major challenges.
Dual purposing of these flights could motivate industry to become involved in this initiative. Grants or tax rebates might be provided to private industry in order to compensate them for their participation. There are many other designs for near space travel in addition to balloon flight that may be suitable for the Victory Gardens in the Sky.
An Integrated Model
For the model demonstration the Thales Group StratoBus is utilized as an example. (Thales Group Website, 2014). The StratoBus is a long endurance vehicle that is a combination of drone and satellite. As compared to the Google Loon balloons which utilizes stratospheric air currents to stay afloat and steer, the StratoBus is designed to remain in a fixed position at all times. The solar powered engines working in concert with stratospheric wind currents provide maneuverability and control. The vehicle is thereby able to capture the sun’s energy at all times. This provides maximum energy for solar power generation and avoids the drop in temperatures experienced by night time stratospheric travel. The StratoBus operates in the lower stratosphere and is able to carry payloads of up to 200 kg. It is designed to operate continuously for up to 5 years. As shown in Figure 8, the interior of the vehicle has been converted to an environment with algae
or photosynthesizing bacteria that process CO2 or methane metabolizing bacteria. They utilize the greenhouse gases as their fuel, producing natural “waste” products such as carbohydrates. The most practical model would appear to be have very large “Victory Garden” near-space vehicles carrying large microorganism payloads into the stratosphere. They may be able to obtain some of the greenhouse gases from the surrounding stratosphere, but the concentration is probably not sufficient in volume to provide the bacteria with the necessary amounts to sustain their metabolic needs. Smaller solar powered drones could travel into the gas rich troposphere and concentrate the necessary greenhouse gases. They would then reascend to dock with the “Victory Gardens” and deliver the needed CO2 and methane to support the microorganisms. The drones would also be responsible for taking away the natural “waste” byproducts such as carbohydrates. These would be floated back to earth for delivery. The entire process should be powered by solar energy so that no further greenhouse gases are generated. The integrated network would be coordinated by mission control on earth.
The model outlined is clearly a futuristic vision with many major technical and logistic details to be overcome. Nevertheless, there is no technical detail in the project that is not being actively utilized or in active development by NASA, Google, Raven Aerostar, Thales as well as numerous other governmental agencies and private concerns. The major question then is whether such a network can process the massive amounts of excess atmospheric greenhouse gases to make a substantial difference in levels. Although there are clearly very significant challenges and hurdles that need to be overcome, it is imperative that discussion be generated as to ways to decease the already drastically high atmospheric greenhouse gases if we are going to be able to deal effectively with climate change.
Summary and Conclusions
Global warming and climactic change are the most serious ecological challenges facing the world today. Although there are numerous proposals for decreasing the production of more greenhouse gases, the level of these gases in the atmosphere are already at dangerously high levels. There is little discussion as to ways to decrease already existing atmospheric greenhouse gases. This proposal puts forth a model for utilizing high altitude stratospheric balloons and vehicles as “Victory Gardens in the Sky.” By creating photosynthesizing centers in the atmosphere, it is possible that we can decrease these levels to more acceptable concentrations. There are numerous technical, logistical and cost issues that need to be addressed as to the feasibility of the project. This proposal is put forth as a “seed of an idea” in order to generate thought and discussion on this important topic.
In order to make a difference in the vast quantities of excess greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere, a very extensive network of solar powered near space vehicles would have to be developed. To carry out a massive initiative such as this a government and private industry collaboration is essential to its success. Projects such as Google Loon and the StratoBus by Thales offer opportunities for sharing of vehicles, technology and costs. If the balloons and near-space vehicles could be dual purposed this could help both private industry as well as aid in climate stabilization.
The term “Victory Gardens in the Sky” is utilized as it coordinates this initiative with the “Victory Trees and Garden” urban reforestation initiative put forth in Part I of this series. It also harks back to the successful World War I and II “Victory Garden” initiative that helped the Allies win these wars. “Victory Gardens in the Sky” also confers a sense of hope that if we work together we can overcome the serious climactic challenges the world is now facing.
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