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Could Krakatoa save the Dales?

Friday 11 September 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who from time to time leaves the comfort of the Yorkshire Dales to visit family in Indonesia, takes a – hopefully – light-hearted look at sci-fi plans to halt global warming by exploding artificial volcanoes and asks: why bother when Krakatoa could save us the trouble

IT IS, at a rough guess, some 7,500 miles from Cracoe, a picture-postcard village in the Yorkshire Dales national park, and Krakatoa, the infamous volcano off the coast of Java which when it erupted 126 years ago set off the biggest explosion in recorded history.

Some 36,000 people are known to have died in Indonesia alone but the monster tsunami it set off around the Indian Ocean undoubtedly killed hundreds of thousands more: it would have made the Box Day tsunami of three years ago look like a ripple on a childrens’ paddling pool.

poWer lines
Krakatoa: image courtesy of Marco Fuller/Barcroft Media

By coincidence, I visit Cracoe, near Skipton, regularly – it is home to one of my favourite country pubs – and also spend a fair bit of time in Indonesia, visiting my son – an engineer in the oil industry – and his family in Jakarta. At weekends, we sometimes motor down to the coast and take a swim in the ocean just a few miles across the bay from that notorious spot.

Now most people think that Krakatoa disintegrated on that fateful day in 1883, ridding the world of one of nature’s most terrible threats. Not so! It has been re-building, slowly and sinisterly ever since, and there are serious people out there who believe it may erupt again inn the not-too-distance future.

Anyone who thinks that is nonsense should take a look at these dramatic pictures by Marco Fuller of Barcroft Media, which were sent to me by my son this week. He is quite blasé about volcanoes – his family home lies between two but, as he told me, “Only one is active, Dad” – but like many highly qualified scientists and engineers, he keeps a wary eye on this stirring monster.

This is all very well, a reader might ask, but what has all this got to do with country life in stable, safe (apart from floods) England? Well, according to another growing bunch of scientists – some might even call them sci-fi scientists – volcanoes, or even artificial, man made ones, could be the antidote to the current (perceived) greatest natural threat to mankind, global warming.

When Krakatoa erupted, you see, millions of tons of ash and sulphur were ejected into the stratosphere and began to circle the world in great clouds. They eventually covered even London and the artist JMW Turner painted famous picture of London Bridge bathed in a strange ethereal light from pink-purple heavens.

poWer lines
Krakatoa: image courtesy of Marco Fuller/Barcroft Media

These clouds had another and, in that era, more unfortunate effect: they lowered global temperatures by two or three degrees for several years, causing severe crop failures in many parts of the world. And that harsh lesson has suddenly been remembered by climate scientists looking for ways to combat warming.

One popular geo-engineering scenario is to create an artificial volcano. Thomas Wigley, an expert on climate change based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the USA, proposes mimicking the natural volcanic process by injecting sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide 60,000 to 70,000 ft. above the earth’s surface.

One popular geo-engineering scenario is to create an artificial volcano

The compound would react to form a cloud of sulfuric acid droplets that would in turn reflect sunlight and cool the globe. Exactly how the material would be delivered isn’t clear—cannons, balloons and high-flying military planes are some ‘highly speculative’ options, he says.

Now my personal views on global warming are, to say the least, ambivalent (and I have been regularly excoriated by true believers as a result).Put simply, I think that we are getting warmer (and wetter in the northern UK) but I believe this is part of a natural cycle spanning centuries caused by our position relative to the sun.

When it comes to ideas like creating artificial volcanoes, I admit to being completely out of my depth. But there are eminent scientists, notable Sir James Lovelock, .who believe that the Earth is a self-healing body, rather like living cells, capable of fighting off one ill with another.

So perhaps we have here a living example of that process. Is Krakatoa due to erupt again, bringing down temperatures all round the world, just as they are supposed to rise to levels disastrous for we humans? If so, I hope massive anti-tsunami barricades are being built around the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. And perhaps dear old Cracoe will be spared from becoming an oasis in the great Pennine Desert.

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