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SOURCE: Physics World

DATE: June 20, 2020

SNIP: Using aerosols to reflect sunlight and cool the planet will weaken storm tracks in the temperate latitudes in both hemispheres, an international team of scientists warn. Their modelling suggests that while such solar geoengineering schemes could reduce the severity of winter storms, they would also stagnate weather systems in the summer. This could lead to more intense heat waves, increases in air pollution, and changes in ocean circulation.

Solar geoengineering involves cooling the Earth by reflecting incoming sunlight and is seen by some scientists as a way of mitigating the effects of global warming. One popular strategy involves placing reflective aerosols in the stratosphere – using aircraft, balloons or blimps – to block sunlight.

But the effects of solar geoengineering are unknown. It would not work as simply as cooling the planet and therefore returning Earth’s climate to pre-industrial levels. Climate under solar geoengineering would be different, as there would still be marked increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Charles Gertler, a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, and colleagues were interested in how injecting aerosols into the atmosphere would impact the pole‐to‐equator temperature gradient in both hemispheres, and the effect that could have on extratropical storm tracks. These are regions in the mid and high latitudes with heightened incidences of storms known as extratropical cyclones, which play a significant role in determining the day-to-day weather conditions in many parts of the world.

“Our results show that solar geoengineering will not simply reverse climate change,” Gertler explains. “Instead, it has the potential itself to induce novel changes in climate.”

“A weakened storm track, in both hemispheres, would mean weaker winter storms but also lead to more stagnant weather, which could affect heat waves,” Gertler says. “Across all seasons, this could affect ventilation of air pollution. It also may contribute to a weakening of the hydrological cycle, with regional reductions in rainfall. These are not good changes, compared to a baseline climate that we are used to.” In the southern hemisphere changes in storm track intensity could impact wind‐driven ocean circulations and affect the stability of Antarctic ice sheets, the researchers warn.

“This work highlights that solar geoengineering is not reversing climate change, but is substituting one unprecedented climate state for another,” Gertler says.