Just before solar eclipse: Secret government experiment to block sun

Just before solar eclipse: Secret government experiment to block sun

One week ago, a group of engineers ran an experiment on the deck of the Hornet, a decommissioned aircraft carrier parked in San Francisco Bay. Carried out just a few days before a total solar eclipse, the experiment aimed to investigate the possibility of blocking out the sun.

The New York Times reported on it, making the experiment seem benign despite its disturbing intent:

“It was the first outdoor test in the United States of technology designed to brighten clouds and bounce some of the sun’s rays back into space, a way of temporarily cooling a planet that is now dangerously overheating,”  the article read. The scientists wanted to see whether the machine that took years to create could consistently spray the right-sized salt aerosols through the open air, outside of a lab.”

“If it works, the next stage would be to aim at the heavens and try to change the composition of clouds above the Earth’s oceans.”

Ironically, the test came just a few days before a total solar eclipse3 transverse the continental US.

The technique has several names: solar radiation modification, solar geoengineering, or climate intervention. Other options for geoengineering are injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, brightening marine clouds, or spreading sea salt aerosols into the atmosphere.

The Biden administration is funding research into different climate interventions. Still, the approach is so contentious that before the experiment, the White House sent a statement to The New York Times that read: “The U.S. government is not involved in the Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) experiment taking place in Alameda, CA, or anywhere else.”

Despite the denial, the White House released a report in July outlining a plan titled “Congressionally Mandated Research Plan and an Initial Research Governance Framework Related to Solar Radiation Modification (SRM).” 

The methods used in SRM are so controversial that even climate activists caution against them. The NYT cited David Santillo, a senior scientist at Greenpeace International.

“You could well be changing climatic patterns, not just over the sea, but over land as well,” he said. “This is a scary vision of the future that we should try and avoid at all costs.”

Karen Orenstein, director of the Climate and Energy Justice Program at Friends of the Earth U.S., a nonprofit environmental group, called solar radiation modification “an extraordinarily dangerous distraction.” 

As a solution, she recommended cutting back on fossil fuels.

“I hope, and I think all my colleagues hope, that we never use these things, that we never have to,” said Sarah Doherty, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington and the manager of its marine cloud brightening program. She warned that there may be seen and unforeseen side effects if the technique is implemented. 

Opponents of geoengineering argue that modifying sunlight could alter global weather patterns, disrupt food supplies, or lead to abrupt warming if it stopped suddenly. It also wouldn’t address air pollution from fossil fuels or ocean acidification, a major threat to coral reefs’ ecosystems driven by the overabundance of carbon in the air and seas.

Some scientists fear that solar geoengineering could also damage the ozone layer, which sits in the stratosphere between 15 and 30 kilometers above the earth. The ozone layer shields Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. In the 1970s, the ozone layer was discovered to have been seriously damaged by commercial use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). A ban on using CFCs led to the ozone layer repairing itself.

Climatologists are also concerned that tinkering with the climate (known as geoengineering) could unintentionally disrupt the circulation of ocean currents that regulate our weather. Implementing it in one country can trigger rain and extreme weather across borders. It is also unknown how blocking the sun will affect crops and ecosystems. Another key issue is what happens when the SAI is discontinued — the “termination shock” would cause a spike in temperatures, creating huge problems for future generations who did not consent to the practice.

These concerns led to a group of scientists initiating an online petition calling for an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering.

The government and private investors are investing millions of dollars in research and development. In 2019, Congress allocated $4 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for stratospheric research, some of which was for solar geoengineering. Last year, the Biden administration announced a five-year research plan to explore the concept.

A 2021 report from the National Academy of Sciences called for the US to allocate up to $200 million to a research program to better understand solar geoengineering, including its feasibility, impacts on society and the environment, and public perceptions.

The idea of SRM is to mimic the effects of massive volcanic eruptions, which have lowered global temperatures in a phenomenon known as volcanic winter. Violent eruptions can send volcanic ash and sulfuric acid droplets into the atmosphere, obscuring the Sun and raising Earth’s albedo (increasing the reflection of solar radiation). Most recently, the 1991 explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the second-largest eruption of the 20th century, cooled global temperatures by about .9 Fahrenheit for about 2–3 years.

While SRM has some powerful advocates, it remains controversial. Two years ago, a test run for the  Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) funded by multi-billionaire Bill Gates would have released about 1,300 pounds of calcium carbonate into the upper atmosphere, approximately 12 miles over Sweden. The Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) canceled the test at the last minute.

A 2018 Harvard study estimated a full-blown SRM program would cost around $2.25 billion a year over a 15-year period.

A smaller test version was carried out over Mexico’s Baja California peninsula last year. Directly after the experiment, the Mexican government announced a ban on solar geoengineering experiments.

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