Of the many impacts caused by climate change, sea-level rise threatens to be one of the most devastating due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of ice and glaciers on land. These impacts, along with numerous others related to rising global temperatures, may in the future motivate a country, a group of countries, or even a very rich individual to pursue solar geoengineering, a controversial proposal for limiting the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. A recent study in The Cryosphere assessed the efficacy of such a solar geoengineering attempt at limiting global sea-level rise.
Geoengineering, as it relates to climate change, falls into two categories. The first, atmospheric carbon removal, entails physically removing carbon dioxide from the air to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations and limit temperature rise. The second, solar geoengineering, involves injecting sulfur dioxide or another aerosol into the stratosphere to reflect a portion of incoming solar radiation, again limiting temperature rise.
Because of the temperature-reducing effect of solar geoengineering, research suggests that such a proposal would also reduce sea-level rise. However, just how effective solar geoengineering could be in limiting sea-level rise had not yet received sufficient research, according to Peter Irvine, the lead author of the study, who spoke with GlacierHub. Irvine and his team of scientists hoped to “shed some light on the complexities of the sea-level rise response to solar geoengineering, make an initial evaluation of its efficacy, and to bring this issue to the attention of the cryosphere research community,” Irvine told GlacierHub.
Initially, the researchers conducted a literature review on the small number of studies that explored the cryosphere’s potential response to solar geoengineering. A 2009 study that examined the Greenland Ice Sheet found that under a scenario where atmospheric concentrations were quadrupled, solar geoengineering could slow or even prevent the collapse of ice sheets. Conversely, a 2015 study determined that while solar geoengineering could slow melting, glaciers and ice sheets would not recover to past states. Lastly, a 2017 study focusing on high-mountain Asia, found that solar geoengineering would stop temperature increases; however, 30 percent of glaciated area would still be lost.
Following the literature review, the researchers evaluated the potential effect of solar geoengineering on three aspects of sea-level rise. The first aspect was thermosteric sea-level rise, or more simply, the thermal expansion of ocean waters. Because temperature is the dominant influence on thermosteric sea-level rise (warmer water is less dense than cooler water), the decrease in solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface due to solar geoengineering would limit sea-level rise.
Secondly, the researchers examined solar geoengineering’s effect on the surface mass balances of glaciers and ice sheets. Surface mass balance is primarily affected by the surface melt rate, which is the result of the availability of energy at the surface of the ice. Thus, a change in solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface would likely reduce surface melt. The analysis of large volcanic eruptions offers an analogous example to what might happen to surface melt if solar geoengineering were pursued because the dust and ash released during an eruption blocks some incoming solar radiation.
One study examined by the researchers showed that surface mass balances in Greenland were at their maxima in the year after the El Chicón and Pinatubo eruptions in 1982 and 1991, respectively. Similarly, another study in Greenland found that in the years following the El Chicón and Pinatubo eruptions, surface runoff was the third lowest and lowest, respectively, between the years 1958 and 2006, further reinforcing the expectation that solar geoengineering would limit surface mass balance reductions.
In addition to its effect on temperature, solar geoengineering would also affect the global hydrologic cycle and subsequently sea-level rise. Warming temperatures due to climate change will likely lead to more precipitation worldwide; however, if solar geoengineering is pursued, this increase could be offset. This precipitation change would affect both Greenland and Antarctica, according to Irvine.
In Greenland, surface melt changes, not precipitation accumulation, are the primary influence on surface mass balances; therefore, solar geoengineering would likely have a positive effect by reducing temperatures, with the decrease in precipitation unlikely to lead to mass balance decline. In Antarctica, on the other hand, increased precipitation due to climate change has had a positive effect on surface mass balance, thus a decrease in precipitation due to solar geoengineering would negatively impact mass balances.
The third and final sea-level rise aspect examined by the researchers to evaluate the efficacy of solar geoengineering was ice lost through calving and eventual ice-sheet collapse. Calving, the scientific name for icebergs breaking off a glacier at its terminus, depends on the speed at which ice flows, which itself is driven by climatic changes.
In Antarctica, warming water known as circumpolar deep water (CDW) is the primary driver of calving. CDW is pushed below and then up into glacial cavities by surface winds, where the warm water melts the ice. This melting drives calving and leads to the thinning of glaciers.
While solar geoengineering would likely lower air temperatures, it is unlikely to reduce the temperature of CDW and limit melting and subsequent calving from below. In addition, a 2015 study found that solar geoengineering is unlikely to limit the upwelling of CDW and could even increase upwelling. However, this finding has yet to be replicated, according to Irvine, and it is not clear whether the results are exclusive to the model used.
There is also no guarantee that solar geoengineering would be able to prevent glacial collapse due to marine ice sheet instability. This collapse occurs when a glacier retreats past its grounding line (where ice meets underlying bedrock) and continues to retreat inland until it reaches another stabilizing ridge. The process might already be occurring at West Antarctica’s Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, which are extremely vulnerable due to the sloping topography upon which they rest.
Nevertheless, retreat and possible collapse might be preventable, says a 2016 study. It showed that returning water to cooler conditions reversed glacial retreat. This finding indicates solar geoengineering may be useful to prevent marine glaciers from destabilizing. While encouraging, it remains likely that certain glaciers, especially those in West Antarctica, will continue to experience significant ice loss regardless of whether solar geoengineering is pursued or greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced.
Based on their study, the researchers lay out four areas in need of future research. First is the need to evaluate the sea-level rise response to solar geoengineering scenarios in conjunction with climate change scenarios so that the efficacy of solar geoengineering and greenhouse gas emissions reductions can be compared. Second is the need to employ regional models of surface mass balance in order to assess the effectiveness of solar geoengineering to limit mass balance losses. Third, the researchers recommend additional evaluation of the effect of solar geoengineering on the CDW upwelling and stability of glaciers and ice-shelves. Finally, the researchers recommend the evaluation of sea-level rise risk, alongside the numerous other risks and challenges associated with solar geoengineering.
The potential for solar geoengineering to limit sea-level rise from the cryosphere is still up for debate, but as this study shows, it may have the potential to reduce temperature and curb some aspects of sea-level rise, including surface mass balance losses and ocean thermal expansion. However, for other aspects, mainly the melting of glaciers from below by warm waters, it may be unlikely that solar geoengineering can limit sea-level rise contributions. Nonetheless, when it comes to the society-altering impact of sea-level rise, solar geoengineering could be a part of humanity’s response.