Cost Effective Solutions to Global Warming (Part II)
Can Already Existing Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases be Decreased?
“Victory Gardens in the Sky”
October 28, 2014
After years of acrimonious debate among scientists and politicians, the global community is now just beginning to join together to face the reality of the negative consequences of climate change and global warming. A recent report by the 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 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” to metabolize atmospheric CO2 and methane gases.
The proposal is speculative in nature with many logistic, economic and engineering details needing to be addressed 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 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 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 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,” 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 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. 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 temperatures.
Decreased fossil fuel use and increased carbon sequestration by reforestation and other initiatives are necessary 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 a century or longer (Metz et al., 2007) and will continue to exert climactic impact as levels slowly diminish. 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 that have found that organisms are present in the atmosphere. They have been found in troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, as well as in the next highest atmospheric level, the stratosphere (DeLeon-Rodriguez et al., 2013; Smith 2011). Although some of these may be biologically active, 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 in 2011. The goal was to test out the feasibility of utilizing 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 balloons have been kept aloft for up to 120 days, riding stratospheric wind currents (Figure 4). They can be directed from ground control and direction as well as altitude can be altered via these currents (Google Blog, 2013). Solar power panels beneath the balloons provide energy and heat for the communication equipment (Figure 5).
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. In addition to CO2.
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. 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 Google to partner in the atmospheric gardens initiative. The balloons would serve a dual purpose of acting a as an atmospheric “Victory Garden” as well as become vehicles for Internet transmission (Figure 6). Google is already collaborating with 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 nature, the collaboration of these agencies would make a powerful technological and scientific force. 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 to Atmospheric “Victory Gardens”
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 network of atmospheric Victory Gardens to be a viable solution are the following:
Low Atmospheric Temperatures & Other 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 higher in the atmosphere and the organisms must be protected from these elements.
Low Atmospheric 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 drones that are specifically designed to rapidly travel into the troposphere for gas concentration and collection. They would then reascend to the stratosphere, 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.
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. For example, the StratoBus (Figure 8) is being developed by Thales Group (https://www.thalesgroup.com/en/worldwide/space/case-study/stratobus-halfway-between-drone-and-satellite). It is a long endurance vehicle that is a combination of drone and satellite. As compared to the Google Loon 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.
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 may already be at dangerously high levels. There is little discussion as to ways to decrease already existing atmospheric greenhouse gases. This proposal puts forth an idea 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 issues and cost issues that have to be worked out 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.
In order to make a difference in the vast quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere a very extensive network would have to be developed. To carry out a massive initiative such as this a government and private industry collaboration would have to take place. Projects such as Google Loon and the StratoBus by Thales may offer opportunities for sharing of 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” confers a sense of hope that if we work together we can overcome the serious climactic challenges the world is now facing.
Google Loon Website (2014) www.google.com/loon
Google Blog (June 14, 2013) http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/introducing-project-loon.html
Hanson RS and Hanson TE (1996) Methanotrophic bacteria. Microbiol Rev. Jun 1996; 60(2): 439–471
Hayden-Smith, R (2010) Sowing the seeds of victory: National wartime gardening programs in the United States during World War I. Doctoral Dissertaion. University of California at Santa Barbara.
Raven Aerostar Website http://ravenaerostar.com/solutions/aerospace/super-pressure-balloons
Scripps Institute of Oceanography (2014) https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/wp-content/plugins/sio-bluemoon/graphs/CO2_800k.png
Tripati AK, Roberts CD, Robert A. Eagle RA (Dec 2009) Coupling of CO2 and Ice Sheet Stability Over Major Climate Transitions of the Last 20 Million Year. Science 326(5958):1394-1397.