Science Friction

UCI physics professor takes on Michael Crichton, global warming

Bush has also called for building more nuclear power plants. What role does nuclear energy have in reducing global warming?

Nukes do have a role. I am in favor of them, but they can't do everything. The Chinese are building 40 nuke plants right now—that's 10 percent of the current number of reactors in the world. They are right to do so, because China has the largest rates of death from emphysema and lung cancer because they burn so much fossil fuel, including coal. The other measure we should implement is increase the reflectivity of the planet to cool it off.

How would we do that?

Benford: Crichton cited his work. Photo by Jeanne Rice
Benford: Crichton cited his work. Photo by Jeanne Rice

We're already doing it. In Los Angeles, there is a program to do this by lightening roofs and blacktops, to lower the urban temperature. The reason to emphasize the cities is that in the summer, if you can reflect light, it lowers fossil fuel use and cools the planet. If you can actually cool the cities, you would get less rain on the city and more on the countryside, because clouds drop more rain over heat islands. So it helps you put the water where you need it and where it won't just wash out to the ocean. Look at the Mediterranean village: it is all white. Guess why? It works.

This sounds like weather control.

It is. We already know how to make clouds. What you do is put fine particles in the upper atmosphere by depositing vapor seeds from aircraft. What happened after 9/11 was an inadvertent experiment in changing the weather. Vapor trails from aircraft result in cooler days and warmer nights. You reflect sunlight with these vapor trails, and they stop the infrared radiation at night. They even out the temperature cycle. This was definitely measured in the four days after 9/11. It was completely accidental, of course.

You've also written about the idea of putting a giant lens in outer space to reflect solar radiation away from Earth. How realistic is that?

I think it's far too grandiose. I'm not advocating it, but this is what you can do: put a huge lens one-tenth of a millimeter thick at the L1 point—the point in space between here and the sun, about four times as far away as the moon, or about 1 million miles away. That's where the lens would have to go, because it would be almost unaffected by either the sun or the Earth's gravity. We already have two satellites there. With such a lens, you can slightly refract enough sunlight to cool the Earth's temperature by 1 percent. That would take care of the greenhouse problem for at least a century and would do so across the planet—not just in the city or the tropics. Two days ago, NASA proposed issuing a challenging grant for anyone that could fly a solar sail to the L1 point. Unfortunately, ideas like this have been largely neglected. People think it's inherently evil to affect the environment, even though we have been doing it for thousands of years.

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