May 31, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Want To Cool Off The Earth? Easy: Shoot Clouds With Lasers

Scientists from the University of Geneva and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany recently published a study in Science Advances that shows how lasers could soon be used to combat global warming. Their paper, “Laser vaporization of cirrus-like ice particles with secondary ice multiplication,” explains the process of using laser beams to break apart atmospheric ice crystals in order to slow down the greenhouse effect.

The technique is based on the principles of surface area and reflection of sunlight. By breaking apart atmospheric ice into smaller particles, the lasers create a larger surface area of cloud-based ice which can then reflect more sunlight back into space. This is not the first time that lasers have been proposed as a solution to climate change. A 2014 geoengineering conference saw presentations on how lasers could be fired from space to incinerate greenhouse gasses or even “grow” clouds.

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An ice crystal being vaporized by a laser in recent laboratory tests.

Despite the success of laboratory-based experiments with this technique and the fact that every video gamer has been dreaming of such an opportunity, the team’s lead researcher says it will still be quite some time before lasers will be blowing up clouds above our heads. Co-author Mary Matthews of the University of Geneva, says the practical application of laser-based climate alteration is still “a long, long, long way in the future."

What we are hoping for is that the advances in laser technology, which are moving faster and faster all the time, will enable high-powered, mobile lasers.

The announcement of this new process is not without naysayers. Critics argue that any tinkering with the environment could have unintended consequences that could end up being catastrophic for all life on earth. Blowing up ice crystals with lasers actually creates a small burst of plasma, which can release heat. Furthermore, clouds can act as a kind of insulator and trap heat; by blowing them up, that heat might be released into the atmosphere, thereby warming it. There is also the problem of powering the lasers themselves. Any high-powered laser will require a substantial amount of energy to power it, which will necessitate the burning of fossil fuels.

Lasers have already been tested by the US Army as defenses against unmanned drones.

Nevertheless, advances like this one show promise that we might one day be able to curb the disastrous results of our carbon-emitting modern civilization. And come on: who doesn’t want to blow stuff up with lasers?

To hear more about this development, check out MU Plus+ Podcast 13.20.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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