Could Turning the Oceans Into a Giant Bubble Bath Cool the Planet?

By Smriti Rao | March 29, 2010 6:07 pm

3163703464_6c86794de2As heated global warming debates continue, scientists are also investigating ways to get our planet to cool off if the politicians can’t figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The latest geoengineering scheme involves turning the world’s oceans into a giant bubble bath, with hundreds of millions of tiny bubbles pumped into the seas. This would increase the water’s reflectivity and bring down ocean temperatures, according to Harvard University physicist Russell Seitz. As the creative physicist said to the assembled crowd at an international meeting on geoengineering research: “Since water covers most of the earth, don’t dim the sun…. Brighten the water.”

Seitz explained that micro-bubbles already occur naturally, with bubbles under the ocean’s surface reflecting sunlight back into space and mildly brightening the planet. What Seitz imagines doing now is artificially pumping many more bubbles into the sea. These additional micro-bubbles would each be one five-hundredth of a millimeter and would essentially serve as “mirrors made of air.” The scientists say they could be created off boats by using devices that mix water supercharged with compressed air into swirling jets of water. “I’m emulating a natural ocean phenomenon and amplifying it just by changing the physics—the ingredients remain the same” [ScienceNOW], Seitz said.

Using a computer model that simulated how air, light, and water interacted, Seitz found that the micro-bubbles could have a profound cooling effect on our planet–suggesting that temperatures could cool as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Along with the reflectivity of the added bubbles, previously published reports show that they may improve fuel efficiency of cargo ships, allowing them to virtually float on air [Treehugger]. Seitz has submitted a paper on the concept he calls “Bright Water” to the journal Climatic Change [ScienceNOW].

While Seitz is excited at the possibility of creating “bubble patches” to reduce the effects of global warming, it still needs to be seen what sort of infrastructure would be required to create these giant bubble baths. And as with all geoengineering schemes, there’s that pesky question of whether hacking planet-wide systems will have any pesky side effects.

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  • J Hanson

    As the ice caps, glaciers, permafrost, icebergs, etc. melt, the resulting water doesn’t just fall into the ocean. It goes into the whole water system. It’s in the ground water, the lakes and rivers, and a lot of it is in the air. The more water vapor there is, the more clouds and fog there are. The more clouds and fog there are, the less this idea of higher water reflectivity will be effective.

  • E Huff

    So as I was reading this, I didn’t see anything about how this would affect the millions of living organisms in the oceans. What’s Harvard got to say about that?

  • Diane

    This is why you don’t sent a physicist to do a marine biologist’s job!

  • Gretchen

    Well, clouds help with reflecting, too… but get a few others behind this idea from different areas of study.

  • rabidmob

    If only we could find a way to put all that thermal energy to use, but we’d probably cause an environmental catastrophe doing that too.

  • Lab Lemming

    Cold oceans with an evaporative barrier might be tough on water supplies, though.

  • Doug Watts

    So … umm … is Mr. Seitz aware that if you block the light to the ocean’s water column, phytoplankton cannot photosynthesize and the entire oceanic food chain collapses?

    Just checking.

  • CW

    What’s the ratio of power needed to make the bubbles to the amount of reflection rate from the bubbles formed?

  • scott

    Just curious…(and I am all for decreasing pollutions from all sources), but this whole climate change thing has we wondering…what if we were instead entering a new ice age, if our winters were getting colder, longer, with ice sheets creeping south. Would we be rushing to do the opposite – pumping out gases to heat things up? Would the people of Montreal be burning fossil fuels, covering the coming ice sheets in black soot so they melt in the sun?

    I personally think humans are arrogant in their quest to manipulate a climate that has been changing for millions of years, these changes which allowed for all animals (and the landscapes we enjoy) to have evolved to the current state that we are for the most part, so comfortable in and enjoy – from glacial sculptured valleys to lagoons in Tahiti.

    I think we risk really messing it up, by doing nothing, anything and everything…from continuing to dump crap into the air, as well as trying to fix it could be catastrophic. So much of our pollution is from making junk goods that are sold in malls and strip centers that we feel we need and that are marketed to us like crazy. The problem is the human desire for more things…bigger houses filled with more stuff. Disposable plastic toilet brushes for convenience as well as the latest trendy granite counter. And as many westerners are starting to downsize and realize this, China, Brazil, India, etc are growing and consuming as we did decades ago with a thirst to have it all. More production of goods, pollution and waste, coupled with less forest to suck it all up……I think nature will soon set a limit on it, eventually any runaway population is set back, somehow.

  • scribbler

    Well put, scott.

    Since I was a lad, I’m a bit over fifty now, I have heard different people from different groups warn us of how we are going to annihilate ourselves and every living thing on the planet. So far, in those fifty years, each and every one of them has been wrong…


  • Brian Too

    Let’s assume that those bubbles are small enough to remain in suspension for a significant time (1/500 mm really is pretty small).

    The difficulty is simply scale. To have any meaningful effect on global climate you have to make bubble patches on a truly gigantic scale. Many thousands of square km at the very least. If you do that by human activity directly you would need to expend major energy resources. Resources that, right now, would likely come from burning fossil fuels!

    Now, if you could genetically engineer algae, let’s say, to do this for us, that might work. But don’t algae already make oxygen as a routine matter? So are we looking for super oxygen producing algae?

  • Albert Bakker

    # 11 – I agree. For anyone who even once glanced at a globe it’s incredibly hard to take this seriously. There’s about 358 million square km of water to potentially turn into soda pop. How much of that will we need to completely poison and turn into lifeless watery deserts to save our SUVs .. I mean selves?

  • m

    turning the oceans into 1 giant Jaccuzzi.

    Time to go shopping for my Speedo.

    I call dibs on the seat next to the bar.


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