Potential ecological impacts of climate intervention by reflecting sunlight to cool Earth

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no. 15 (April 13, 2021)

Abstract: As the effects of anthropogenic climate change become more severe, several approaches for deliberate climate intervention to reduce or stabilize Earth’s surface temperature have been proposed. Solar radiation modification (SRM) is one potential approach to partially counteract anthropogenic warming by reflecting a small proportion of the incoming solar radiation to increase Earth’s albedo. While climate science research has focused on the predicted climate effects of SRM, almost no studies have investigated the impacts that SRM would have on ecological systems. The impacts and risks posed by SRM would vary by implementation scenario, anthropogenic climate effects, geographic region, and by ecosystem, community, population, and organism.

Complex interactions among Earth’s climate system and living systems would further affect SRM impacts and risks. We focus here on stratospheric aerosol intervention (SAI), a well-studied and relatively feasible SRM scheme that is likely to have a large impact on Earth’s surface temperature. We outline current gaps in knowledge about both helpful and harmful predicted effects of SAI on ecological systems. Desired ecological outcomes might also inform development of future SAI implementation scenarios. In addition to filling these knowledge gaps, increased collaboration between ecologists and climate scientists would identify a common set of SAI research goals and improve the communication about potential SAI impacts and risks with the public. Without this collaboration, forecasts of SAI impacts will overlook potential effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services for humanity.

Zarnetske, P. L., J. Gurevitch, J. Franklin, P. M. Groffman, C. S. Harrison, J. J. Hellmann, F. M. Hoffman, S. Kothari, A. Robock, S. Tilmes, D. Visioni, J. Wu, L. Xia, and C.-E. Yang. 2021. Potential ecological impacts of climate intervention by reflecting sunlight to cool Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1921854118.