Geoengineering start-up’s claim it got ‘OK’s to launch’ from the FAA doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

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Controversial solar geoengineering startup Make Sunsets says it released three balloons of atmosphere-altering particles in Reno, Nevada, this month. It’s an escalation of the company’s questionable tactics to fight climate change that prevented the company from launching balloons in Mexico in January. And while the company says it has received the green light from the FAA and local authorities, officials say no such permit has been granted.

As Make Sunsets explains it, this kind of geoengineering is a solution to humanity’s epic failure to stop the planet’s pollution. But experts say Make Sunsets has jumped the gun with its experiments — even those optimistic about solar geoengineering. There are still far too many questions about whether the tactic can help or harm our planet more. Nevertheless, the company makes claims about its work that it has been unable to substantiate.

The company makes claims about its work that it has been unable to substantiate

Make Sunsets attempts to recreate the way past volcanic eruptions temporarily cooled the planet. Volcanoes often spew sulfur dioxide, which combines with water in the stratosphere to create a hazy layer of sulfuric acid droplets that can reflect solar radiation. Artificially recreating this process, called stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) or solar geoengineering, has been a hot topic for years. The two-man team at Make Sunsets is just the first company to throw caution to the wind and go for it, regardless of the potential consequences.

The irreverence with which Make Sunsets tackles such a loaded topic is easy to see on the website. “We’re happy to debate this with anyone, just confirm an audience of at least 200 people and we’ll find the time to try and convince you,” the FAQ page says with a winking emoji in a section subtitled “I’d like that you stop doing this. The company’s blog post attempting to explain what SAI is was written largely using ChatGPT. Make Sunsets co-founder Andrew Song explains Time he got a potential new sales slogan, “sunscreen for the earth”, by similarly asking the chatbot to explain geoengineering to a five-year-old.

The startup’s rugged experiments are even more telling. Song and co-founder Luke Iseman lit fungicide on a grill to create the sulfur dioxide gas in a chilling scene Time describes as a “sulfur barbecue” in a parking lot in Reno with families who are clueless. Make Sunsets then sends the gas into three weather balloons to release the small amount of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.

Two men stand in a parking lot with a small blue charcoal grill between them.

Have Sunsets co-founders Luke Iseman and Andrew Song in a parking lot where they will light a sulfur-based fungicide for their experiment.
Screen shot by The edge from a video that Make Sunsets uploaded to YouTube.

Make Sunsets did the same with two balloons in Mexico last year. At the time, they lacked tracking devices that could monitor whether the balloons even rose high enough to carry the sulfur particles to the stratosphere. The company also did not consult with the local authorities. In January, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources said it would ban future experiments to protect nearby communities and prevent unintended environmental consequences.

This time, in Reno, Make Sunsets proudly says in a blog post that it received “OK’s to launch” from the Federal Aviation Administration and Reno International Airport prior to the experiment – claims The edge could not verify.

“Despite being the most huggable objects in the sky, a lot of people have been nervous about balloons lately. Fortunately, aviation officials kept their cool and exemplified government work to enable safe, small-scale, innovative experiments,” Make Sunsets says in the blog.

Officials may have kept their heads straight, but they don’t appear to have given Make Sunsets an official “OK.” Public Affairs Coordinator for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, Nicolle Staten, said in an email that the agency “has not given approval or approval … We’re not sure we have the authority to give approval for something like that like this, but if asked our answer would be no.” The airport authority says it received a call from Make Sunsets referring the company to the FAA. The edgethe FAA says it doesn’t have to approve unmanned free balloon flight unless it requires a regulatory waiver.

When asked about the discrepancy between the Make Sunsets blog post and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority’s response, Iseman points to an FAA NOTAM alert issued to notify pilots of potential flight hazards. “Perhaps the discrepancy is that they just acknowledged receipt of the NOTAM and did not issue any form of official approval as none would be issued?” Iseman writes in the email.

The FAA also notes in an email that the “a aviation safety agency and to which our regulations apply aviation safety.” In other words, it is not responsible for monitoring geoengineering attempts. Policies just haven’t caught up with that kind of atmospheric mess. While there is a quasi-de facto moratorium on large-scale geoengineering from a 2010 United Nations biodiversity conference, it is vague and precludes small-scale scientific research.

However, what Make Sunsets is trying to do is far from scientific, experts say The edge. “I don’t even know what to call it,” Paul Newman, chief Earth sciences scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told me. The edge in an interview in January. “Science is about numbers. If you don’t have numbers, there is no science. So even as a technology demonstration it was nothing.”

“Science is about numbers. If you don’t have numbers, there is no science.”

Unlike its experiment in Mexico, Make Sunsets attached tracking devices to two of the balloons it launched in Reno. But that didn’t work out very well. They were able to track the flight path, but failed to get consistent measurements of altitude. That’s why Make Sunsets couldn’t live up to the purported climate service it’s already trying to sell to consumers. The company sells “refrigeration credits” for $10 per gram of sulfur dioxide. The credit would represent the cooling effect sulfur dioxide could have in the stratosphere. But it won’t work if the sulfur dioxide never gets that far.

Since Make Sunsets could not confirm whether the two tracking balloons reached an altitude of more than 20 km, the company decided not to count them towards fulfilling cooling credit orders. But the company was also haphazard with that decision. “A friend who is also a customer” released the third balloon in Reno without any tracking device, according to the Make Sunsets blog. As per the wish of the friend/customer, that balloon counted despite the lack of concrete data on its success. “They decided to think of this as fulfilling their order of 1 Cooling Credit: first paid implementation done!” says the blog.

For now, Make Sunsets’ experiments are so miniscule anyway that they’re unlikely to have any meaningful impact, good or bad. Each balloon contains less than 10 grams of sulfur dioxide. In 2021 alone, the U.S. emitted about 1.8 million tons of sulfur dioxide, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels. That figure has dropped over the decades, thanks to policies under the Clean Air Act. As a pollutant, sulfur dioxide can cause acid rain and inhaling it can have harmful effects on the lungs.

In the middle of a lawn stands a man with a large white weather balloon.

Make Sunsets CEO Luke Iseman stands with a balloon just before releasing it.
Screen shot by The edge from a video that Make Sunsets uploaded to YouTube.

Scientists are also studying the impact SAI could have on Earth’s ozone layer as it alters the chemistry of the stratosphere. “We are convinced that you would probably make the Antarctic ozone hole worse, and much worse if you did. [stratospheric] aerosol injections,” Newman tells WebMD The edge.

Still, as climate change rapidly escalates, some research groups and even the Biden administration are cautiously assessing solar geoengineering as a way to cool the planet. But even some of the most ardent proponents of solar geoengineering research are angry about Make Sunsets’ haphazard foray.

“This isn’t like some engineering problem that we didn’t know how to put sulfur into the stratosphere that needs to be solved by a few smart entrepreneurs,” said David Keith, a Harvard University professor and faculty director of the solar geo- engineering school. research program. “The challenge is understanding the risks, predicting the side effects, finding the most effective ways to use these technologies in a way that delivers the maximum human benefit with minimal risk.”

The other big challenge, he says, is making it collective decisions about how to deploy this type of planet-altering technology. That’s the exact opposite of some dudes roasting sulfur in a parking lot, popping their balloons and trying to make a profit off it.

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