Amazon is backing research to do something about that pesky sun

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is running simulations about what would happen if we blocked the sun, and Amazon is fully on board.

People view sunset scenery at Singapore's Labrador Park, Nov. 30, 2021. (Photo by Then Chih Wey/Xinh...
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Greenhouse gas emissions, produced largely by major corporations burning fossil fuels, is trapping radiative heat from the sun in our atmosphere and causing our planet to warm. The one surefire way to combat this is by ditching fossil fuels and cutting our reliance on emissions-producing energy sources.

Or, okay, hear me out: what if we just block the sun?

Amazon, which has seen its carbon footprint increase every year since 2018, is seeking an answer to this question. According to a report from Gizmodo, the company has offered up some of its massive farm of processors made available from Amazon Web Services to help researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and solar radiation management nonprofit SilverLining run computer simulations to see what would happen if we blocked out part of the sun.

To be fair, putting up the global equivalent of the sunshade you put in your car’s windshield is not Amazon’s idea. It’s a dubious solution that scientists have been kicking around ever since realizing that the planet is warming. We’ve spent decades ignoring that reality and burning more fossil fuels and are approaching the point of no return, so considering alternatives, no matter how dystopian they may seem, is crucial.

But blocking out the sun is way up there on the list of things that we should probably not actually do. There is a little bit of evidence to suggest that there is some merit to the idea: researchers have found that moderate geoengineering could mitigate some planetary warming, and we have real-world examples of what happens when volcanoes block out the sun: it tends to have a cooling effect — though it leaves the sky dark and sends harmful chemicals like sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen fluoride lingering in the air. But trying to get the benefit of blocking the sun with none of the downsides is a major risk. Researchers have warned that it may not work to combat the worst effects of climate change anyway, and it is likely to have unintended consequences. It could disrupt weather patterns or create unpredictable storms. And it creates a new problem: if we stop blocking the sun, will we end up with rapid and devastating warming?

We don't have good answers to these questions, and running climate models may help to fill in those gaps. But there is a solution in front of us that we know will work: reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those are what are causing the planet to warm, they are largely the result of human activity, and we can change that. We have no idea what happens once we block the sun, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of what happens if we stop pumping emissions into the atmosphere. So how about we stick to what we know?

Amazon farming out its computing power is a bright spot here. (Though, ironically, one that is dimmed a bit by the type of research taking place.) Typically, climate models require supercomputers in order to process all of the many variables that need to be accounted for when projecting the future of the planet. These models are finicky and challenging to create. For example, recent research has suggested that most climate models have failed to accurately model clouds, and it could be producing predictions that underestimate the planet’s warming temperature by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Supercomputers are expensive as hell, costing hundreds of millions to build and an additional several million dollars per year to run them. Cloud computing, on the other hand, is cheaper and taps into existing infrastructure rather than requiring a new machine to be built. Amazon offering its racks on racks of processing power to researchers could be a boon for climate research. Now if they’d just create a model for how Amazon can cut the carbon instead of blocking the sun.