The Supercomputer Tackling the Climate Crisis
Geoengineering would change the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation
The National Center for Atmospheric Research has recently installed a new supercomputer in part to assess the feasibility of solar geoengineering, a proposed solution to climate change. In tandem with greenhouse gas reduction, solar geoengineering projects would emit reflective aerosol particles into the atmosphere, blocking excessive radiation from the sun. NCAR’s new computer, nicknamed “Derecho,” will study the potential effects on the atmosphere from such projects, as well as more conventional studies on wildfires and hurricanes. The computer’s operation is potentially the first step in tackling the climate crisis in a radical new way.
Derecho’s system boasts 19.87 petaflops, giving it the ability to run 19.87 quadrillion calculations per second, three and a half times faster than the center’s previous computer. Beyond its studies into solar geoengineering, other projects include building models to better predict hurricanes, the effects of wildfires on air quality based on the 2020 California fire season, and the impact of solar storms on the atmosphere. Derecho’s study into solar geoengineering comes on the heels of a Congressional report signaling support for greater studies into the technology, but as it stands now, solar geoengineering is still a new field.
The Derecho computer. (Source: NCAR)
The most commonly proposed model for solar geoengineering is the use of stratospheric aerosol injection of sulfate particles to reflect solar radiation back out into space. The NCAR study, headed by Kristen Rasmussen of Colorado State University, will run simulations on rain patterns in South America and what effect the deployment of aerosols could have on them. At this point, potential side effects of solar geoengineering are poorly understood—studies like this will assess the long term effects of engineering changes to the Earth’s atmosphere. There is understandable concern that such a project could in turn spawn off its own problems.
A major concern of solar geoengineering, beyond unintended side effects, is that its research and use comes at the expense of greenhouse gas reduction. In any proposed model of solar geoengineering, greenhouse gasses would still need to be rapidly phased out, with aerosol injections acting more as a transitional technology than a solution in itself. Although it has the potential to aid greatly in the climate crisis, solar geoengineering is not a silver bullet and its use would only come after extensive testing, like those soon to be performed by NCAR’s Derecho computer.