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Posts Tagged ‘geoengineering

“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)


As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.


“The beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine”*…

Of all the things that humanity builds from concrete or stone, there are few structures that influence the surface of Earth quite as profoundly as a dam.

By blocking the flow of a river, we dare to defy gravity’s pull on water from mountain to estuary – and influence the trajectory of geology itself. A dam does so much more than submerge a valley to create a reservoir: it transforms a river’s natural course, accruing silt and sediment at an artificial barrier, and dampening water’s erosional force downstream

Their vertiginous walls, striking shapes and deep foundations will also leave a unique archaeological imprint. Some of these engineered monoliths are so enormous that they may be preserved for millennia.

Meanwhile, dams can also bring deep changes for the people who live nearby, and the generations that follow them. When a government in a distant capital decides to exploit its rivers, destruction of local homes, farmland and livelihoods often follows. For example, while the rest of the world focused on Covid-19 earlier this year, an entire ancient town in Turkey was lost to rising reservoir waters. Long after we are gone, future archaeologists will study such submerged settlements and may wonder why we let them go for the sake of short-term politics and energy demand.

The effects can be felt a long way from home, too. Damming rivers that wind through continents, like the Nile in Africa, can withhold valuable water and power from countries downstream, forever changing the trajectories of those nations…

Few human structures can change a landscape quite like a dam– a pictorial essay: “How dams have reshaped our planet.”

* Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes


As we interrogate interruption, we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that the All Saints Flood broke dikes and overwhelmed the Dutch (and parts of the German) coast. At least 20,000 people were drowned and many times that many left homeless; livestock was lost in huge numbers; and winter stocks of food and fodder were destroyed. In Zeeland the small islands Wulpen, Koezand, Cadzand, and Stuivezand were permanently lost.

Drawing by Hans Moser in 1570 of the flood


Written by LW

November 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water”*…




The pillars of smoke from the Bel Air fire were visible around the city, and as the firefighters struggled through the canyons, most people could simply watch and worry. But Ralph Parsons, the wealthy founder of a wildly successful international engineering firm, was trying to end the Southern California drought — forever.

It was 1961.

The solution Parsons devised, a continental-scale plumbing project called the North American Water and Power Alliance, or NAWAPA, was never built, but it’s never quite gone away, either. Today it persists as a fantastical vision that could have been, and might in some form still be…

The North American Water and Power Alliance was an audacious proposal to divert water to parched western states that would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars and pissed off Canada.  The abandoned plan that aimed to save America from drought: “Pipe Dreams.”

* “Noah Cross” (John Huston), Chinatown


As we contemplate the commons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1832 that an act of Congress created Hot Springs Reservation, protecting the site’s thermal waters to be “preserved for future recreation,” in Arkansas.  Established before the concept of a national park existed in the U.S., it was the first time that American land had been set aside by the federal government in this way, and so is considered by many to have been the first National Park.  It officially became a National Park in 1921.


Pool of hot spring water in Hot Springs National Park


“Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.”*…



“Whitening” the ocean (to reflect more solar radiation) by widely dispersing films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors– or by towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.


The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of…

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane…

Destroying the earth to save it?  Review several of the oil giant’s visionary “solutions”: “Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet.”

* Naomi Klein


As we head for the hills, we might spare a thought for Robert McCorkle Netting; he died on this date in 1995.  A geographer and anthropologist, he pioneered the field of cultural ecology.  Among the many findings from his extensive field work, he argued that worldwide, small farms succeeded where large-scale agricultural enterprises tended to fail, the household being the most effective management unit.  His methodology has been widely adopted, and his textbook, Cultural Ecology, is widely used.

nettingrobertthm source


Written by LW

February 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

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