Could geo-engineered clouds protect coral reefs?

Over the past 10 years, the negative effects of climate change have become vastly more apparent. Superstorms, extreme heat, floods and tornadoes are all complications caused by a planet that’s warmer and more polluted than ever before.

Few parts of the earth show these effects as clearly as the ocean. Warming seas affect marine health, alter fish migration patterns, and most recently, bleach coral reefs into oblivion. New research suggests that seeding marine clouds could help regulate ocean temperatures, shielding vulnerable coral reefs and protecting the essential ecosystems they make possible.

Image via mattk1979

“When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white (see above). This is called coral bleaching,” explains the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Bleached coral isn’t dead, but it’s extremely vulnerable.

New research, published recently in Atmospheric Science Letters, proposes the artificial “brightening” of marine clouds. The researchers behind this study suggest that by adding additional clouds, they may be able to reduce sea surface temperatures in areas that face a particular threat of bleaching, thus giving the coral time to recover naturally.

“To brighten clouds unmanned vehicles are used to spray tiny seawater droplets, which rise into the cloud, thereby increasing their reflectivity and duration. In this way, more sunlight is bounced back into space, resulting in a cooling sea surface temperature,” explains a press release.

The researchers believe that this a “targeted version of the geo-engineering technique could give coral a fifty year ‘breathing space’ to recover from acidification and warming.”

Coral bleaching is an extremely dangerous and costly phenomenon, especially in cultures that depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods. In the study, which focused on the Caribbean, French Polynesia, and the Great Barrier Reef, computer modeling was used to predict theimpact of seeding marine stratocumulus clouds.

Results showed that projected increases in coral bleaching could be eliminated when sea surface temperature cooled to pre-warming levels due to marine cloud brightening.

However, geoengineering of any kind is considered very controversial, since it depends on altering the natural weather patterns of the planet. While the desired result may be achieved in the short term, there’s almost no way to predict how the long-term effects. Not to mention that it fails to address the root causes of climate change, which is the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of vital ecosystems due to human development.

* Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling