Geoengineering suggests that wide ranging change for the positive
can be applied to large-scale processes, such as climate change, to
reverse and improve upon the current situation. Many geospatial
technologies are new technologies, less than a few decades old, and
only now beginning to provide a glimpse into these processes.
Many of the geotechnologies we use today are new and have only been
developed in the last few decades. Their development has led us toward
a pathway that enables higher and higher levels of data integration,
thus greater understanding of both natural and man-made processes,
We do not understand them all and one might even suggest that only
recently have we begun to appreciate the scales at which they occur and
the durations of their activity. We have learned quite a bit about the
planet and its ecosystems, both physical ad biological – but we also
have much more to learn and understand.
Many of our efforts to understand more about these processes has
required that we pay attention to developing data models, work on data
quality, increase computing power, develop new tools and resulted in
the discussion of new policy issues as we have proceeded, step-by-step.
Even the shift from a 2D to a 3D world, using geospatial technologies,
is very new. Many processes we simply do not understand in 3D, and these tools and data can help immensely.
Accordingly, the role of geospatial technologies has largely been
oriented toward discovery and pursuit of knowledge. We have not
mastered policy development related to spatial information, yet. In so
much as this has not been fully engaged, one might wonder why we would
set upon a course of geoengineering the world without developing the
policies and regulatory framework for inacting large-scale changes,
thereby also providing an enlightened path for understanding when to do
nothing geoengineering wise – or to learn more before moving further.
There have been cases where geoengineering has been used in recent times. The liming of acidic lakes has
corrected the pH balance of lakes which are acidic. In practice
geotechnologies involving sensors and their locations to ascertain pH
conditions would have been used both before and after lime applications.
One might also argue that modern large-scale variable rate or
precision farming is in fact geoengineering, since it is based on the
concept of managing processes related to the production of food,
particularly soil fertility. Similarly, land drainage plays a role in
mining and the seeding of clouds to produce rainfall is also an attempt
to geoengineer natural processes, thereby crearing rainfall where it
otherwise would not fall.
As might be expected, there are advantages and disadvantages on each
side for every geoengineering application. Have we had these
discussions in the geospatial community about geoengineering yet?
We would be hard pressed to deny that some geospatial technologies
are not used for altering the landscape, changing the flow of rivers,
removing trees from mountains and dividing natural landscapes into
sub-divisions and transportation routes.
The point I wish to make is that development will necessarily mean
growth, change and new processes across the landscape. It is important
that we understand the role of these impacts and discuss them widely.
When the word ‘design’ is mentioned it takes on different meaning to
At the same time it is important to understand that naturally
occuring processes are powerful. The earth can awaken our attention
dramatically. Tsunami, earthquakes and flooding are clear examples of
powerful events that we would have a hard time imagining that we could
manage, control and design around. Time and time again nature has shown
us it must be respected.
Discovery and understanding
That we even entertain ideas about geoengineering the planet
attests to the fact that significant discovery and understanding about
planetary processes has already been achieved. However, not all of that
information has been derived from geospatial technologies.
Geospatial technologies’ role in geoengineering, I think, is primarily oriented toward discovery and the pursuit of knowledge.
Embedded within this discovery is the ability to communicate the
knowledge we gain between organisations, agencies and individuals.
As we set about to measure, monitor, map, model and design upon,
within and above the Earth’s surface, geospatial tools and spatial
information have a unique role. They can help us to understand how all
the processes work together. They can also help us to understand human
needs and how they can be obtained sustainably.
A discussion of changing the Earth’s climate without a discussion of
sustainability is a hollow journey. Changing the size of mountains or
the flow of large rivers without a dicussion of sustainability is empty
and unimportant without discovering the nature and value of these
changes to the longevity, health and happiness of people.
By far geospatial technologies are in a position to help provide the
information and knowledge that few other technologies can when it comes
to the Earth’s physical and biological processes.
I wish more young people knew this.
Geoengineering Our Way Out of Trouble
What’s Next 2008: Geo-Engineering
Climate Change and Geoengineering
‘Geoengineering’: Space Mirror Over Greenland
Geoengineering is Not the Solution to Climate Change
Geoengineering Could Slow Down the Global Water Cycle
There are an increasing number of big
science ideas for reversing the warming course of our planet, such as
massive dumps of iron into the ocean to foster carbon-sucking algae
growth or pumping sulfur into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s heat.
While all of these efforts are an enormous gamble, escalating pressures
placed on our planet by global warming may elevate how seriously these
ideas are contemplated. Any contemplation will require in-depth
modeling and analysis, and geospatial technologies will play a role.
There’s a growing interest to apply
geospatial tools on a global scale, and datasets are growing to offer
enlightening insight into large-system science. The means of the
Internet provides a conduit and concentration of knowledge that can be
applied to such large-scale problems with increasing insight. The
global community of scientists and researchers are applying their
efforts in collaboration rather than isolation, and that’s an
encouraging development that will speed our understanding and spread
the solutions widely.
It’s likely that governments will encourage research into big
science solutions to the growing harmful economic and social impacts of
climate change. There’s a long history of such concerted efforts to
understand and manipulate earth systems, and there’s huge risk of
sitting idly by when the pressures continue to mount. Each of the
serious big scheme ideas should be dissected for the costs and benefits
Take the idea of fostering algal growth to absorb carbon. We know of
large-scale naturally occurring blooms through observations via remote
sensing satellites and measurements from direct observations in the
oceans below. Existing computer models are tracking variables and
closely monitoring conditions now. It’s possible to feed what we know
now into such models to extrapolate potential outcomes, but
considerable experimentation will be necessary in order to truly
understand the reactions taking place.
This experimentation will require many more measurements on a
massive scale that are inline with the idea of the Global Earth
Observation Systems of Systems (GEOSS). With integrated space
observation platforms and surface sensors, along with large-scale
software systems to ingest and model the data, we stand to gain a great
deal of insight into the interworkings of our planet.
There may indeed be an answer out there that could have short-term
positive impacts on pending global change, but do we really know enough
to provide positive change without catastrophic side effects?
The problem with such far-reaching tinkering with planetary systems
is that there’s no measurable precedent, and no control on ancillary
outcomes. Our exploration into questions of planetary health are still
rather young, and the length and breadth of our observations are also
short. We only need to look at past failed practices and experiments to
reach the humbling conclusion that, while we know a great deal about
our planet, we don’t truly understand the complexities of the
interrelationships of earth systems. Past efforts of reproducing Earth
systems in controlled environments (Biosphere 2) should remind
ourselves of the still mysterious and magical balance of life on Earth.
When you think about this issue deeply, you come to the realization
that we’ve been practicing a form of geoengineering at least since the
Industrial Revolution. The industrialization of the world, with
carbon-belching factories and pollution clogging our air and waterways,
has had profound effects on our planet. To think that we can engineer a
large-scale and speedy fix to the ills of our climate is arrogant. It’s
also dangerous to think that a clever global solution is just around
the corner, hampering and delaying the realization that concerted
action and changes in behavior have to occur now.
The solutions to climate change can be found in measured and
integrated approaches that produce clean energy, tackle carbon
sequestration, and put our environment back in balance. Geospatial
technologies will be used in each of these lower scale alternatives,
and for any course that we choose where we need an in-depth
understanding of our planet.