Saturday, July 5, 2008

Strange Weather Part II - GeoenginURBanism

Fertilize the oceans with iron in order to sequester carbon dioxide; launch fleets of ships to whip up sea spray and enhance the solar reflectivity of marine stratocumulus clouds; use trillions of tiny spacecraft to form a sunshade a million miles from Earth in perfect solar orbit. (Mooney)

As an interesting follow up to the initial “Strange Weather” post from a few weeks ago, this month’s issue of Wired magazine features an article on Geoengineering, the branch of science which explores mega-scale modifications to our planet in order to reverse the detrimental environmental and meteorological damage we humans have subjected our planet to since the start of the industrial revolution. Entitled “Climate Repair Made Simple” the article primarily discusses the work of Ken Caldeira and Lowell Wood, two scientists at opposite ends of the political spectrum who have come to some sort of consensus that a science-fiction inspired intervention of epic proportions may be our last resort at resolving our climate crises. Treaties and regulations can only go so far, they argue, and they maybe too slow in reversing our trends. They think that “the only solution lay with technology: direct, aggressive intervention…to turn down the volume knob” on the global warming problem.
Geoengineers’ two most promising solutions involve the two remaining frontiers left to humanity: the oceans and space. One popular geoengineering proposal is to “inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect a portion of the sun’s rays back into space, thus cooling the planet.” (Mooney) This is the technique suggested by Wood and Caldeira. Wood first proposed this back in the 80’s with his partner in crime Edward Teller, better known for inventing his own environmental catastrophe: the hydrogen bomb. Caldeira, a computer scientist with a green heart, began studying this idea using computer simulations of the Earth during the 90’s in order to disprove Wood’s crazy theories. The only drawback: Caldeira’s simulations proved that geoengineered solutions might actually work.
In an article called “Geoengineering our way out of trouble”, Patrick Huyghe discusses the various strategies of geoengineering and the people/institutions that are at the forefront of this exploration. Another solution proposed by geoengineers “involves dumping tons of iron into the waters of the Antarctic to stimulate plankton growth and thereby absorb the buildup of CO2 and slow greenhouse warming.” (Huyghe) Huyghe points out the controversial nature of geoengineered solutions, even among geoengineers themselves.
The general consensus regarding radical geoengineering schemes is that it's too early to be talking about them--if it's not broken, don't fix it. But the future could well bring a change of mind. ‘Geoengineering may most likely become necessary if looming anthropogenic climate change becomes a disaster that can be avoided in time only by a temporary technical fix,’ notes author Martyn Fogg: ‘Natural climate change might also be mitigated in the more distant future, such as to prevent the next glaciation which, if unrestrained, would bury the wreckage of Northern civilization under several hundred meters of ice. It is also possible to imagine a situation in the remote future where geoengineering is permanently applied to extend the life of a biosphere no longer able to conduct satisfactory homeostasis due to a hotter, more evolved Sun.’

What I think could be interesting for architects and urbanists would be to thing of ways we can start providing geoengineering solutions on a building or city scale. Of course sustainable architecture and urbanism both help to do their part, but I want to speculate on what geoenginURBanism might look like.
In 1960 Buckminster Fuller, famed inventor of the geodesic dome among other things, proposed building a giant dome over the island of Manhattan, in order to create a large scale biosphere. Although living in a super large, climate-controlled interior space for our entire lives (probably on film, a la Truman Show) is probably not a good idea, could we invent a porous membrane that is breathable and only allows good UV rays in and reflects back the bad UV rays? Perhaps this could be a way of combating the urban heat island effect—build a gigantic shading device over the entire city! It could also incorporate PV cells, Wind Turbines, and other power generating devices. It could be a filigree of sustainability.
On a side note, there is renewed interest in Bucky Fuller now due to an exhibit this summerWhitney Museum of New York. Regarding Bucky’s life’s work, curator K. Michael Hays says “We didn’t talk about sustainability in Fuller’s day. But he was trying to develop ways of living that would benefit the largest number of people with the fewest possible resources.”
Early in the 2000’s, Yosuke Obuchi, a professor at the Architectural Association in London, designed Wave Garden as a prototype for an ocean-powered power plant using the piezo-electric effect, which is ” a flexible electric generator, where bending the material or applying stress creates an electric charge.” Just by resting on the ocean this giant surface can generate electric power from the oscillation of ocean waves. What is great about the wave garden is that it turns a technocratic solution into a socio-cultural-technical solution. For this is no mere power plant—on the weekends it has the potential to turn into a vast public park half the size of Central Park. It also fits neatly into our current capitalist system by offering incentives for reducing energy consumption. According to Obuchi:
Demand for the energy the Wave Garden produces on weekdays determines its function on the weekend, when energy consumption declines. If Californians have consumed little energy, they are rewarded: the tiles rise to the surface to form recreational platforms and swimming ponds. But if weekday demand is too high, the garden remains strictly a power plant. Acting as a barometer of energy use, the Wave Garden makes invisible power visible.

What if in addition to its great power and public space generative qualities, the Wave Garden also became part of the geoenginURBanism arsenal—stick some iron panels on that sucker to grow some plankton, inject it with sulfur dioxide, let it whip up some sea spray! Infuse it with geoengineering capabilities! Now, these are just two examples of what geoenginURBanism might be. I’d love to hear from you people out there if you know of other examples or what your think could be a potential for this exciting new branch of urbanism.
(crickets chirping in background)
Umm…Ok, well…here are some definitions from Wikipedia to keep you occupied:
Planetary Engineering
Planetary engineering is the application of technology for the purpose of influencing the global properties of a planet.[1] The goal of this theoretical task is usually to make other worlds habitable for life. Perhaps the best-known type of planetary engineering is terraforming, by which a planet's surface conditions are altered to be more like those of Earth. Other terms used for particular types of planetary engineering include caeliforming,[citation needed] for the creation of an Earth-like atmosphere, and ecopoiesis for the introduction of an ecology to a lifeless environment. Planetary engineering is largely the realm of science fiction at present, although some types of climate change on Earth are recent evidence that humans can cause change on a global scale.
Terraforming is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, or ecology of a planet, moon, or other body to be similar to those of Earth in order to make it habitable by humans.
Geoengineering is the deliberate modification of Earth's environment on a large scale "to suit human needs and promote habitability". [2] Others define it more narrowly as focusing only on the mineralogy and hydrology of the Earth.[3] The term geoengineering is distinct from accidental anthropogenic climate change.
on Fuller at the

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