Can This 'Cloud-Brightening' Technique Save the Great Barrier Reef?

Spraying seawater flume into the sky could help reduce the Great Barrier Reef's coral bleaching.
Irmak Bayrakdar
The team spraying seawater droplets into the sky.Brendan Kelaher/Southern Cross University

While coral bleaching due to climate change, ocean acidification, and warming oceans has become a worrying issue for the 1,429-mile-long (2,300 km) Great Barrier Reef, there are still some ways we can save one of the most complex natural ecosystems in the world. 

A team of researchers from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Southern Cross University successfully trialed a world-first marine ‘cloud-brightening’ technology off the north-eastern coast of Queensland, Australia in a bid to protect the reef systems from bleaching events, according to a press release. Using seawater mist, the team was successful in creating artificial clouds that could lessen the warming effects of the sunlight over the coral reefs.

Dr. Daniel Harrison, Southern Cross University Senior Lecturer and project leader, said that cloud brightening was one of the most promising potential methods that could protect very large areas of reefs.

Turning seawater into a sprayable flume 

Harrison explained in the press release: “Microscopic seawater droplets are sprayed into the air, evaporating leaving just nano-sized sea salt crystals which act as seeds for cloud droplets, brightening existing cloud and deflecting solar energy away from the reef waters when heat stress is at its maximum."

“In the future this technology might be able to be applied over the Great Barrier Reef to reduce the severity of coral bleaching during marine heatwaves, cooling and shading the corals below.”

In the video footage of the project's trial run, Harrison says "Cloud brightening concept is where we take seawater, atomize it, which is sprayed out of the turbine (on the ship). Then those droplets will mix up with the atmospheric layer and brighten the clouds a little bit," about the project. If all goes according to plan, this process could buy the endangered marine life a couple of decades. What's more, the process uses no chemicals and relies solely on natural processes. 

Researchers set out to the sea with two boats; one was a ferry that carried the jet engine-looking turbine that is the prototype cloud brightening machine with its equipment, including accommodations for the team members, and the other boat was fitted out with an air sampling equipment that was used to check if the project was working. A total of 320 nozzles sprayed a nano-droplet flume into the sky off the back of the boat while the team monitored the process using the drones and the sensors aboard the second boat.

Harrison’s project is one of the several controversial geoengineering technologies that scientists have been studying for decades. And the research has been driven by fear that humans one day may have to manipulate the Earth’s climate and weather systems to reduce the grave impacts of global warming, reports Nature

Though Harrison underlined the fact that this project was not about geoengineering, but adapting to the environment in order to prevent further damage to the coral reefs, researchers will need to look into all aspects of the technology, including environmental risks such as whether the technology could affect global or local rainfall patterns over the ocean or land over the following years. 

The idea of geoengineering, or climate engineering, is very controversial since it's unclear how the climate would respond to particles injected into the stratosphere (unless you're Storm from X-Men or Nami from One Piece). 

Intentionally modifying the weather sure sounds problematic, but as greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, scientists are beginning to look at possible solutions. Since climate change is also humans' doing, could it be possible for us to try and rewind?

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