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Science Fares Through Science Fairs

Climate change, otherwise known as ‘the biggest environmental fad to get an entire generation of humankind to stand up for a common cause, as of history’s account today”

Movies and serials have played a huge part in molding people’s outlook towards the happenings in their day to day life. Its normative touch, for the lack of a better phrase, has conventionalized certain actions, so much so that people would lose their minds in the absence of those elements. One such cliche perpetuated by English movies and cartoons in specific is the good old baking soda volcano science project in every science fair. We know it’s old, we know it’s simple, yet every time it shoots that white cloud of powdery ash through its nozzle, we stand in absolute bewilderment. ” What is this magic?”, my younger cousin asked me when she first saw one of those makeshift volcanoes at my school’s science fair. Well, I don’t quite remember what I told her, perhaps because I considered it quite mystical myself but in retrospect, I more or less know what the right answer to the question should have been. “It’s not magic, dear, it’s the medicine for the maladies of climate change”

Climate change, otherwise known as ‘the biggest environmental fad to get an entire generation of humankind to stand up for a common cause, as of history’s account today”, is a pressing problem that’s eating away discrete portions of nature, as you continue reading this article. Yes! Those kids in season 2 of The Politician were not being hyperactive, over sellers of the issue while in fact, they were merely selling an undersold crisis that has been taken too much for granted. To put things into perspective, the United Nations report on climate change predicts that humankind has approximately a decade or lesser to make the earth hospitable for the future. So it matters not as to whether the earth is flat or curved but in that the fact that the earth itself is in grave danger of an impending cataclysm. This is a threat that grows insidiously, which demands immediate action in terms of reducing emissions, shifting to renewable sources of energy production, and instituting proper climate action policies at various levels of governance. This is why Climate has moved from being a question of environmental importance to a problem of justice at the social and political level. So the billion-dollar question is, what does a science project with a volcano have to do with solving this crisis? Pinatubo dear readers, Pinatubo is the answer.

Image via wired.com

Mount Pinatubo, is a stratovolcano in the Philippines and not a cocktail, although the name might fittingly represent both these entities. The year was 1991, as lay Filipinos resumed their daily chores unbeknownst of the future, multiple earthquakes struck the mainland rendering the people in a shockwave of emotions. The volcano that had remained dormant, in a 500 year-long slumber was going to wake up and the earthquakes were mere teasers for the bigger picture that was yet to unfold. On June 15, highly pressurized gaseous reactions within the mountain led to a humongous explosion, the second-largest in a century, experts say. The eruption caused a 5 cubic kilometer volumetric plume of white smoke and ash to be projected to heights ranging to about 7 miles vertically, reaching the lower layers of the stratosphere. Massive devastation and a substantial loss of life and property were the results of this catastrophic explosion, at least that was what was reported in the grander scheme of things until after a while when scientists started observing some peculiar geological changes. 

Following the event, global temperatures dropped causing rainfall patterns to shift and cooling cycles to pace up. This was quite a non-intuitive, miraculous consequence that arose out of a tragic phenomenon and analysts later reasoned that the cloud of white smoke that covered the stratosphere, reflected much of the incident influx of sunlight thereby effectively increasing the albedo of the atmosphere and dropping temperatures. Science had seen a remarkable breakthrough in global warming combating through a volcanic event and soon enough, extensive research began on reflective physics and stratospheric seeding. One such solution that has been spoken of widely is artificial cloud seeding.

Image: Zwya.com

Cloud seeding, as self-explanatory as the term is, is literally the alteration of weather conditions and precipitation levels by artificially inducing moisture-absorbing substances into the upper layers of the atmosphere. The science behind seeding is rather simple and is that these induced substances that have a tendency to absorb moisture will coalesce rapidly thereby making clouds heavily laden with water. Common seeding agents such as silver iodide that have been used to seed stratospheric clouds are white in color and hence increase the reflective capacity of the upper atmosphere too. Much like how the eruption of Pinatubo circumstantially helped in  atmospheric whitening, seeding seeks to achieve the same result, but with less of a toll on human health and property. 

Currently, around 30% of the sun’s rays that reach Earth are reflected back to space by white surfaces, largely our polar ice. Sea ice reflects sunlight better than any known natural surface, bouncing around 90 percent of what comes in back up to space; at the other end of the spectrum, the blue ocean reflects just 6 percent of sunlight and absorbs the rest. With Arctic sea ice rapidly declining due to the increasing influence of carbon based industrialization, replacing one with the other is expected to see global warming accelerate and cloud seeding seems to offer an economical solution to the impending problem. 

However, is it enough if we just seed clouds, whiten the atmosphere, and tweet to the world that we’ve solved global warming? Well, there’s more to it than just pure scientific acumen being put to action through practices such as seeding itself. Climate action has been enlisted as one of the 17 sustainable development goals that nations must strive to achieve by 2030 and it involves an array of different avenues besides just environmental adjustments. Emission levels in India stand at a whopping number of around 2000 million tonnes and continue to increase as industries double and triple outputs by the day. Cloud seeding and stratospheric reflection techniques will work only in so far as the internal carbon emission cycles are progressively brought to a minimum. 

What that is required in my opinion is institutionalizing climate action policies in different ladders of society from the school to the professional level. Conservatory practices stemming from the household, something as simple as shifting to solar power or boycotting plastics may go a far longer way in addition to macroscopic solutions such as geoengineering processes. As inhabitants of the blue planet, we have an inherent stake in its safety and stand at the helm of defending its surface from losing its habitability. As every minute passes, the climate clock ticks in reverse, reserving earth’s place in the deep and dreary chasms of the climatic abyss but the catch is, we hold the clock. What’s next? …

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Jack of all spades, Jackass of all trades funnily summarises Anirudh's wit, vocabulary, and personality. A public seeker and public speaker, Anirudh is basically an extrovert with a purpose to educate and learn at the same time.

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