Under a White Sky

by Elizabeth Kolbert 2021

Book Review by Ray Herrmann

The author starts with the story of the Chicago River, in which we reversed its flow in 1900. Prior to that, the river was a sewer which flowed into Lake Michigan and fostered routine outbreaks of Typhoid and Cholera.
Next is the story of a sinking Louisiana. The Mississippi River flows through there and normally periodically floods as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River spreads about 400 million tons of sediment over southern Louisiana yearly. This builds up the land, so eventually this rise causes the Mississippi River to change its route is response. But to control the flooding and prevent rerouting, we "Straightened" the river. Result is that now the sediment which shored up the land passes into the Gulf while the land erodes and sinks. Our response has been to build ever higher levees and to install pumps to keep sinking places like New Orleans (now below sea level) dry.

She then explores many other grand projects where man's efforts to remake the earth to suit us have lead to unforeseen consequences, followed by efforts to mitigate the damages this caused. She explores in some detail: Coral Reef Bleaching, the Intentional release of the huge Cane Toad to Australia, which is now eating many species to extinction, and then to the enthusiastic use of the CRISPER technique to "Rewrite" or "Redesign" DNA and RNA. [ I have often cringed at the euphoria of these biologists who often write about their exploits in MIT Technology Review magazine. These biologists seem intoxicated with their power to control life and oblivious to the consequences (Pig genes don't get into Bananas naturally). …sorry, I digress.]

Finally, Kolbert explores the issues of Global Warming. She visits scientists at a CO2 Capture and Injection plant in Iceland (called Climeworks where she and others pay a fee to capture an amount of CO2 equal to their estimated causation). But CO2 injection is only stable in places which have enough basaltic or olivine rock to react with it.

She then travels to Greenland and visits scientists studying the Glaciers, where she learns that the melt rate over the last 30 years has increased 7 fold, from 30 billion tons/year to over 250 billion tons/year now. Greenland, alone, holds enough ice (accumulated snow fall) to cause the worlds oceans to rise by 20 feet!

Here is a quote in her book from one geologist (pg 184): "The timescale of the climate system is centuries to thousands of years. If we stop CO2 emissions tomorrow, which, of course is impossible, it's still gong to warm at least for centuries, because the ocean hasn't equilibrated. That's just basic physics. We're not sure how much additional warming that is, but it could easily be another seventy percent beyond what we've experienced. So in that sense, we're already at 2ºC. We're going to be lucky to stop at 4ºC. That's not optimistic or pessimistic. I think that's objective reality."

So, even if we are able to bring our CO2 emissions to zero, much more effort needs to be done. This leads the author to interview with scientists who are working on ways to "engineer" our climate (i.e. to take an active approach to control it). Their favorite proposal is to dump heat-reflective particles into the stratosphere on a massive scale. This could cool the earth much like the massive eruption of Mt. Pinatubo cooled us temporarily in 1994. However, this effort would require about 40,000 plane flights into the stratosphere per year, dumping about 1 million tons of sulfur (or calcite or diamond dust) into our air every year.

But there are downsides to this concept:

The above scheme would also change the color of our sky from Blue to a Milky White (hence the title of her book).

A recurrent theme in Elizabeth Kolbert's book is: Grand Scale Projects often cause Grand size Problems!

My conclusion (also reinforced by prior readings) is that we are already way past any "Tipping Points" and we are in a state of confusion, driven by:

I might add that our ever increasing POPULATION GROWTH lies quietly behind our ability to live comfortably within our finite Earth! As our population grows without bounds, our supply of needed resources (food, water, habitable land) dwindles!