GTRAA, aka “Project Silverdome” — Solving Climate Change Forever

If you read our intro article (Engineering Earth — Solving Climate Change Forever; the Power of Hope), you know why the standard approaches to solving our climate crisis won’t work. Carbon, electrification, fossil fuels; these are just the matches that started the fire. And they will remain smoldering embers for as long as they exist. But you can’t put out house fires by snuffing matches. If we’re to save this planet from our own greed, stupidity and short-sightedness, it’s going to take solutions bigger than any of them.

Planetary-scale solutions. Geo-Engineering.

The idea of engineering our planet and its climate are nothing new; some of the first books about it were written in the mid-1960s. And, in fact, neither is the solar radiation management system we’re proposing here. Even if you’re not familiar with the science, you’ve probably seen it in a thousand sci-fi movies. First to mind, likely, The Matrix. Where humanity “scorched the skies” to prevent the rise of the machines. Thus creating the dystopian Hellscape we’ve all grown to know and love.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. And, geo-engineering isn’t some far off dream anymore. It is, in fact, not only something we can do today. We can do it efficiently, to immediate effect and probably most importantly of all…CHEAP.

After all, what good are solutions we can’t afford to implement?

Consider the following less an innovation than an approach. An argument, for how we can do what humans have been doing successfully for the last century: turning science fiction into reality. One badly needed, since, frankly, we’re out of options otherwise.

Presenting our Global Reactive Thermal Albedo Augmentation (GRTAA) System. Also known as “Project Silverdome.” A solution we can implement today, to save the planet we call home for generations to come.

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Section 1. The SilverDome; Deep Blue Skies, and Clouds in Space
Section 2. Reflection vs. Absorption; Approach Considerations
Section 3. Behold, the Firmament; Snowclouds in Space
Section 4. Composition and Appearance; Perfect Sunsets, Blue Skies and Diamonds in the Firmament
Section 5. Deployment; Geosynchronous, Heliosynchronous and Lateral Orbiting
Section 6. Cost of Deployment
SUMMARY


Section 1. The SilverDome; Deep Blue Skies, and Clouds in Space

To put it bluntly: GRTAA (aka “Silverdome”) is a heat shield. A giant, orbital heat shield to save the planet we call home.

To be clear, we’re not talking about a solid Spaceballs-spec snow globe around the planet. Partly because President Donald Scroob would inevitably program the access port with an idiot’s luggage code. But mostly because if we actually built such a solid sphere around the planet, a “snow globe” is exactly what it would become.

Scientists estimate that in order to stop climate change, and reverse global temperature to Pre-Industrial levels, we’d only need to reduce the amount of infrared energy reaching Earth’s surface by a few percent. Depending on where we concentrated our heat shield, we could potentially drop global temperature by several degrees over the course of ten years. Which could start out a good thing, and then lead into a permanent ice age if we overdo it.

Such is the potential power of this system; which is why we need to make it as thin and self-limiting as possible to do the job. What we need is a heat shield that:

  • Can reduce thermal input long enough to allow our ice caps to rebuild, breaking the thermal runway cycle and restoring albedo naturally.
  • Can hang around long enough for us to get to where we need to be in terms of greenhouse gases, preventing further melt-down in the future.
  • Will ultimately self-destruct once it’s done its job.

We also need something that spacecraft can enter or exit without problems. And without requiring we open a window coded 1-2-3-4. Our “heat shield” wouldn’t be a solid mass, then. It would be individual, free-floating particles.

It would be a cloud.

In space.

So thin would this particle mass need to be, you wouldn’t even be able to see it from the ground. All you might notice is a slightly deeper blue sky, as Rayleigh Scattering begins to occur earlier. If you saw the heat shield at all, it would likely only be only on edge. As a slight circular ring at the edges of the globe, hovering just above the surface into low orbit. A “silver dome,” if you will.

We just call it GRTAA.


Section 2. Reflection vs. Absorption; Approach Considerations

This project was originally named for one of the first materials historically considered for the “cloud” — powdered aluminum. In the past, we’ve also considered powdered titanium, titanium dioxide (the pigment in white paint), zinc oxide (the sinscreen you use for your nose) and a host of other white or reflective materials. All of which would have done the job or cooling Earth. Especially since one of them is a literal sunscreen.

However, there’s a slight problem with this reflection strategy: It would likely destroy all life on Earth.

Pure Reflection Strategy

Nevermind the environmental effects of spraying this stuff into our atmosphere. Fact is, you can’t reflect the infrared radiation we don’t want without reflecting the ultraviolet light plants do. Any infrared reduction significant enough to reduce global temperature would come with an ultraviolet reduction large enough to annihilate the base of Earth’s food chain. So, it’s probably a good thing they haven’t done it. And there are a host of other problems with this approach.

  • They’re heavy and expensive. Most of the materials considered for the pure reflection strategy are either too heavy or too expensive to use. The sole exception being titanium dioxide, which is one of the lightest particles on Earth. So, in terms of bang for the buck on deployment, titanium dioxide would still be ideal for a pure reflection strategy. If we were dumb enough to use it.
  • They’re too hard. Some of the materials considered for this technique are literal industrial abrasives. It takes a good deal of particle density to completely block solar energy. Which means every spacecraft hitting them would be literally sandblasted at Mach 10.
  • They interfere with radio signals. Kind of a problem for satellites further up, including GPS.
  • They reflect ALL WAVELENGTHS OF LIGHT. Far and away, this is the biggest problem with a purely reflective strategy. We need ultraviolet radiation. Without it, every plant on Earth dies. And any reduction in UV input will cause a corresponding drop in plant life. Since plants are the base of the food chain for life on Earth, blocking UV in any amount could cause catastrophic mass extinctions from the bottom to the top of said chain. This might not be a problem over the poles, where surface plant life is practically nonexistent anyway. But it’s a huge problem everywhere else.

A number of solutions have been put forth to deal with these problems individually. But, frankly, all of them only create other problems we’re going to have to deal with later.

Especially the ones involving high atmospheric deployment. Those are just multiple consecutive train wrecks of unintended consequences. Like using rattlesnakes to kill a mouse, bobcats to kill the rattlesnakes and gorillas to control the bobcats. Using any purely reflective approach, particularly in-atmosphere, we’re only creating a cycle of ever-escalating issues to deal with later. Best just to kill our mouse now, and avoid the gorillas.

So, GRTAA is going to need something a little more specific. Some material capable of filtering out the infrared radiation we don’t want, and allowing to pass the ultraviolet we do. We need an infrared selective material.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of them on Earth.


Infrared Selective Strategy

This is where GRTAA differs entirely from all other heat-shielding proposals to date. Because we use an entirely different strategy and mechanism that won’t destroy life on Earth.

Specifically: infrared selectivity and orbital heat radiation.

Infrared heating works like this: Long infrared light rays from the sun hit a molecule. The molecule stops those waves, and vibrates to absorb the energy. That energy releases as heat. Very similar to how a microwave works. This is how infrared energy heats things; you, your black car, my black trench coat. The darker something is, the more infrared energy it absorbs, and transmogrifies that energy to heat via molecular movement.

That’s a bad thing, if you’re talking about oceans, which are essentially giant dark spots on the Earth. They bear almost the full brunt of the sun’s infrared energy input, reflecting almost none back. Which is why oceans act as the planet’s heat sink, trapping said energy below our greenhouse gas atmosphere and causing global warming.

But, a thing doesn’t have to be dark to absorb infrared energy. Water itself, after all, is clear. And puddles get hot in the sun like anything else.

It also allows ultraviolet light to pass through, Unhindered.

Ever gotten a sunburn on a cloudy day?

That’s right.

The answer was always all around us.


Section 3. Behold, the Firmament; Snowclouds in Space

And, so God made the vault, and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.” Genesis 1:7

You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the literary elegant of historical books. It doesn’t take a scientist to see simple answers staring us so obviously in the face, or a comedian to recognize irony. But as elegantly simple and historically ironic solutions go…this one’s pretty Biblical in scale.

We considered a lot of materials before this one. Any number of plastics could have done the job. But not only would they be expensive, they’d likely freeze rock hard and shatter in the near absolute-zero of space. Silica sand, chromic oxide, and a number of other transparent natural resources could do it. The Earth has no shortage of common, infra-red selective materials.

I’d like to think we wasted tons of time looking at all of them, before stumbling on the most obvious material in the world.

Literally.

The most abundant substance on Earth: Water. More specifically, saltwater. Even more specifically, a super-saturated saline solution. Let’s consider the benefits of this material.

  1. It’s Infrared-Selective, absorbing heat at a molecular level while allowing the passage of ultraviolet.
  2. Thin clouds don’t block radio signals in any appreciable way.
  3. It freezes instantly, and stays frozen in space. If the crystals do break apart, they’ll re-freeze into smaller ones.
  4. It can be transported as a liquid, frozen on site and ejected as soft, harmless snowflakes.
  5. Those flakes will eventually coalesce into larger crystals, and fall to atmosphere under gravity.
  6. It’s literally the cheapest thing on Earth.

So, water itself seems like an almost perfect solution. But why the salt? Why not just use pure H2O?

The Reasons for Salt

First, because salt is fantastic at absorbing heat. As infrared selection and absorption go, sodium choloride hits far above its weight class. Adding as much salt as possible to the flakes should dramatically increase each individual flake’s ability to absorb infrared and emit it as heat into deep space. This increases the efficiency of the shield, thus reducing deployment costs and increasing lifespan.

Second, we use it as a softening and anti-clumping agent. Saltwater can and does freeze; we see it at the poles on a regular basis. But water that quickly freezes with salt trapped between the crystals forms extremely weak ice. More like a slushy, less like hardened concrete. Salt ice forms snowballs, not boulders. Which does two things for GRTAA.

  • Extends the lifespan of the Silverdome by reducing crystal clumping and re-melt formation. Large chunks could just be torn apart by gravitational stresses, or by hitting other chunks and space debris. Freezing saltwater ensures our heat shield doesn’t just become an orbital boulder field over the next hundred years.
  • Decreases damage done to spacecraft. First, because the crystals are very soft and easy to fracture. But also, because spacecraft passing through them (especially on launch and re-entry) will likely be very hot. And if not, the kinetic energy of hitting those crystals will melt them.

Why Use Water At All?

This is actually a good question, and something worth considering as we develop the system. Frankly, pure salt alone — in fact, almost any metallic salt — will do the job. Perhaps better and cheaper than water. It’s something we’ll have to look into in terms of cost, deployment, lifespan ect. We may wind up using a pure salt strategy.

However, on a gut level, I feel that some amount of water may be beneficial. Water ice has many unique qualities in terms of crystal formation, the ability to melt and reform, and the ability to go away that we feel could help to add some stability and control to the system that wouldn’t exist with a pure salt strategy.

Besides, GRTAA is my project, and I like the aesthetics of it. So, for now, for the purposes of conversation, we’re going to stick with saltwater (hypersaline) “snowflakes.” Not only because they form a good basis for gathering cost estimates, and giving us some frame of reference for deployment. They’re also pretty. Historically.


Section 4. Composition and Appearance; Perfect Sunsets, Blue Skies and Diamonds in the Firmament

Thinking hard about what our shimmering, saltwater-snowflake Firmament will look like from the ground and in space, I am struck with the disturbing notion that it may be...kind of nice.

From the ground, you’ll likely see:

  • Nothing at all. Directly, at least. The particle density of the Dome at its thickest wouldn’t even be a light mist. Less than that, a haze. Even less; looking straight through, it would take powerful telescopes looking at stars on a dark night to see any direct light distortion whatsoever. There may be some, but most big observatories are in Northern Latitudes where our Dome will be thin to nonexistent.
  • Deep, Blue Skies. If the Dome is directly detectable, it’ll only be through slightly bluer skies than you’d expect. Since a certain amount of Rayleigh Scattering will happen outside of out terrestrial atmosphere, you can can expect a somewhat deeper blue tone to the open sky. It might not even be noticeable; but then again, it well may depending on where you are.
  • Nicer Sunsets. The same light-scattering effect would likely result in deeper and richer colored sunsets, lasting longer than average. Imagine taking a picture of the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen, and turning up the color saturation on red, orange, purple and blue. The sky overhead might transition from a deeper amethyst to cobalt blue, leading into blazes of fiery crimson and canary.

From space, I should imagine you’d only be able to see the Dome on edge, and only at certain times of the day. From there it may appear as a continuous rainbow arc, tinged with the colors of sunset.

To be honest, the goth in me vomits a bit at the idea of rainbow bridges and picturesque sunsets. I’d have almost preferred the dystopian Matrix hellscape. At least my trench coat wouldn’t look so out of place. But, since other people have to live here, too…I suppose you could do worse.


Section 5. Deployment; Geosynchronous, Heliosynchronous and Lateral Orbiting

There are three basic ways of deploying GRTAA: geosynchronous, and lateral orbit.

  • Geosynchronous Positioning

    This refers to creating stellar clouds primarily over areas most needing of a temperature reduction. Those being, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, between the Tropic Lines. That’s where we’re going to get the most bang for our buck in terms of cooling the planet and rebuilding the polar ice caps. Thus restoring albedo and global temperature controls via natural methods.

    Over the long term, we could do this same trick over human-populated land masses, like Africa, Australia, India, and the Southern Unites States. Effectively, by positioning dense areas of stellar cloud overhead, we could turn the thermostat up or down at will in any of these areas. Thus making previously uninhabitable or infertile areas into lush, tropical preserves.

    That is an option in the future; and we almost certainly will do it, eventually. There’s nothing at all stopping Australia from paying to launch its own GRTAA shield over the Outback. Private entities could just as well do the same thing. These are all options, and something worth anticipating in the future.
  • Heliosynchronous Orbit

    Otherwise known as “sun-centric” orbiting, this strategy has a lot of potential in terms of efficiency and cost savings.

    In practice, heliocentric orbiting is the opposite of geocentric. Instead of setting our particles to orbit with Earth’s spin, we send them at the same speed against it. Thus, creating a filtering “lens” permanently positioned in between Earth and sun. As you see it from the ground, this filter would pass directly overhead from perhaps 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thus, blocking out infrared only during the hottest part of the day.

    There’s a lot of potential with this strategy; and also a lot of technical problems. More so even than geosynchronous orbiting. But, if we could science it out right, Heliosynchronous positioning would almost certainly prove the best and cheapest of all.
  • Lateral Orbiting

    Eventually, someone will figure out a way to make Synchronous Positioning work. Perhaps with tender ship, by circling heavy satellites acting as Gravity Sheep Dogs for the snowflake herd, or by some other method.

    However, that’s in the future. For now, I believe the realities of getting these particle clouds to stay in place, positioned perfectly in a permanent geosynchronous orbit, without some sort of shepherding system are next to nothing. Over a long enough period of time, given zero relative groundspeed, they will begin to drift apart like smoke clouds in a stagnant room.

    Which is why, to solve our immediate problems of global temperature, I would suggest we start with simple lateral bands between the Tropic Lines. Starting from the equator and working out. Those would be fairly simple to stabilize simply by inducing some lateral orbital velocity. There will still be some scattering and degradation of the bands over time, but it will take much longer than of we tried to position the clouds geosynchronously using techniques on hand.

    Obviously, it would be much safer building these bands over the poles first. And arguments could be made for that. It’s the conservative approach; much slower, perhaps ineffectively so. But with less risk involved, just in case I’m not as smart as I’m sure I am.

    Or, we could go for broke, get immediate results and start at the equator. It may well end up being some combination of the two, perhaps with a bit of short-term geosynchronous cloud-building involved for good measure. It wouldn’t be impossible to position snowflake ejection facilities over the Pacific and start building outward from there. But, the mass ejection reaction would require constant burning of fuel to maintain position. Which would make the whole proposition much more expensive.

    Instead, I suggest we take advantage of the mass ejection thrust with purpose built deployment ships.

On a personal note, since this is my project: I’d suggest naming the first deployment ship the Debra K. After my mother. She spent her whole life as a Union President helping everyone else. I’d like to think she’s still up there somewhere, saving the world.

But, at what cost?

Check please.


Section 6. Cost of Deployment

Obviously, planet-saving technology is going to carry a planetary-scale price tag. But, this one comes with a few benefits.

  • It can be amortized over several decades. The heat shield as envisioned doesn’t have to go up all at once. This is something we can pay for, as a species, over the next several decades or more.
  • It doesn’t have to come from any one bank account. The cost could be spread over many countries or entities.
  • It’s cheaper than replacing civilization. How much does Houston cost? New York? London? At what price Sydney, Tokyo, Miami, or Los Angeles? How much would it cost to replace every low-lying town on Earth and move its population elsewhere? Not to mention military bases, ports, historic sites; all could easily be wiped out by some combination of climate change and rising sea levels. How much money would that cost?

First, talk about the dimensions of the Dome itself, in its most extreme version, as we envision it:

  • About a half-mile thick, with an ice density of a couple flakes per cubic foot.
  • Enough to create a thin layer of frost over that same ground surface area. Albeit, spread out over a larger area vertically.

That’s the actual composition. This is significantly more than it would take to provide an effective infrared shield around the planet. A thin layer of frost.

Normally, you wouldn’t expect this to do anything; but bear in mind, we’re talking about materials that absorb infrared, sitting in near absolute zero.

Under these conditions, it won’t take much to make a difference. Which is why if we actually put this much material into orbit, it would probably throw us into an Ice Age within decades. Remember, all we’re trying to do is lower infrared energy absorption by a couple percent. Not block it completely. That would be suicidal.

But, for the purposes of calculation, let’s just probe the limits of the system and go with our highest end figure.

Now, with the hedging out of the way, what’s our total price tag for an effective GRTAA system circling the equator, running from Tropic to Tropic?

First, lets calculate how much water we’d need. Bearing in mind all we would need is the equivalent of a thin layer of frost covering this area.

  • 196.4 million square miles = The Surface area of the Earth
  • 100 million square miles = Approximate Tropic-to-Tropic area
  • 0.29 pounds = Weight of 1/16-inch thick solid ice per square foot
  • 8 million = Pounds of solid ice to cover 1 square mile

Which comes out to about 800 billion tons of water to cover the entire tropic ring in solid ice. Which sounds like a lot, and it is. But, we’re not talking about solid ice. Fresh snow/frost is about 1/20th the density of ice, so our actual figure comes in closer to..

40 billion pounds of water. Roughly four square miles of ocean.

At present, it costs about $1,000 per pound to put anything into orbit; though that might get as low as $100 or even $10 within our lifetimes. For now, lets go with the high-end figure and call it:

40 Trillion Dollars. Literally, all the money in the world. At present.

Gulp.

Now, will it actually cost that? No. Hell, no. Not even close. Remember again, this is for essentially a solid sheet of orbital ice that would almost instantly wipe out all life on Earth. The most extreme possible application; 40 trillion is would it would cost to freeze the Earth solid. Even ten percent of this would likely be orders of magnitude higher than we’d need to just stop climate change.

Combine this with the fact that space travel is getting cheaper all the time, and will probably hit $100 a pound within our lifetimes, the actual, realistic figure comes in at between 700 Billion and 1.5 Trillion.

To put that in perspective: As much as twice the size of our 2020 military budget.

Maybe less.

Of course, this doesn’t account for material costs or building the Debbie K …which won’t be a trivial matter. And space travel might not get that much cheaper any time soon. But even if our budget comes in at four times the high-end estimate (6 Trillion), that’s still only 200 billion a year, over 30 years, with every nation on Earth throwing in.

Even if it’s only the top ten richest nations on Earth contributing, that’s only 20 Billion each, per year. Not exactly bankruptcy money.

We could recoup that on carbon taxes alone.


SUMMARY

This is GRTAA; not a new idea, necessarily. Just a new approach to make an old idea work.

Is it a solid plan? Set in stone? Not by a long shot. Much work remains to be done. But the fact is, this is achievable by humanity using technology and funding available now. We can end global warming tomorrow, without unintended consequences, or turning mice into gorillas. All it takes is a simple change of approach, and we can solve this problem.

Solar Radiation Management isn’t some far-out sci-fi dream. It’s not beyond reach, or hope. Yes, this will be the single largest and most singularly expensive public works project in history. Yes, it will take time, cooperation and coordination. But no more than most wars, and we’re happy to waste money on those at the drop of a hat. Wars for oil are always popular, and never seem to run out of funding.

Wars of survival for the species, on the other hand…well, suppose we’ll see where our priorities lie.

We have the ability to save ourselves. We have the technology, and the means to do so tomorrow. If we choose. Now, all that remains is the wisdom and will to see it through.

Humanity’s survival is a matter of choice, now.

What follows is up to you.


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