An introduction to geology
An introduction to geology

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

An introduction to geology

4.10 Interviews on Leverhulme centre for climate change remediation

Increasing the size of the plug hole in the atmospheric bath tub might sound like quite an audacious plan, but there’s serious research looking at doing just that.

Watch the following two videos featuring Dr Neil Edwards. In the first video, Anne speaks to Dr Edwards about the Earth system and why it is important to understand it.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 4.2 The Earth system
Skip transcript: Video 4.2 The Earth system

Transcript: Video 4.2 The Earth system

ANNE JAY:
We are a bit hooked on oil, aren’t we?
NEIL EDWARDS:
We are a bit hooked on oil, indeed. So, the question now is, can we get off that addiction quick enough to save the planet, basically?
ANNE JAY:
So, if we can’t get off the oil, is there anything that we can do to tweak the climate, change the atmosphere, that might actually reduce the CO2 around the place?
NEIL EDWARDS:
So there are various possibilities being discussed of how to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And the one that we’re interested in is actually something that the Earth system does all the time. So all the time, plants are taking carbon out of the atmosphere, carbon is being drawn down, reacting with rocks and the landscape, and that’s part of the natural carbon cycle. So the question is, can we accelerate that natural carbon cycle and make this carbon drawdown happen faster than it naturally would?
ANNE JAY:
I have heard something about my favourite type of volcano being used. I study a type of volcano called a large igneous province. And these are massive. The one I study covers a quarter of the peninsula of India. And I have a bit of it here. Are you going to take it away?
NEIL EDWARDS:
Well, that’s a good question. So those rocks are actually very important to this proposal of what we call enhanced weathering.
End transcript: Video 4.2 The Earth system
Video 4.2 The Earth system
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In the next video, Anne talks to Dr Edwards about what’s involved in the plan.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 4.3 Rock weathering
Skip transcript: Video 4.3 Rock weathering

Transcript: Video 4.3 Rock weathering

NEIL EDWARDS
Rock weathering is the process that takes carbon out of the atmosphere on very long geological timescales, tens of millions of years. So what happens in rock weathering is basically, the rain falling on rocks causes the rocks to dissolve, the carbonic acid that’s in the rainwater because of the carbon in the atmosphere. It dissolves the rock. That dissolves the minerals in the rock. And if they’re silicate minerals, then the products of that dissolution eventually flow into the ocean. And some of the carbon that’s taken out of the atmosphere gets permanently removed into the ocean sediments.
ANNE JAY:
OK. So if that’s what happens naturally, what are they hoping to do to my volcano that’s a bit quicker? Because obviously, we haven’t got geological timescales to fix this problem.
NEIL EDWARDS
We don’t have geological time, exactly. So what we need to do is accelerate that process somehow. And the quickest way – the easiest way – to accelerate it is, instead of taking this massive clump of rock, we basically cut it down into much smaller pieces.
ANNE JAY
Something a bit more like this?
NEIL EDWARDS
Something a bit more like that, indeed.
ANNE JAY
This is a nice, powdered rock that I used for some chemistry quite a long time ago. But it’s kind of like flour now. Is that about right?
NEIL EDWARDS:
Exactly. So basically when you powder something, when you powder a rock, the amount of surface area relative to the amount of rock increases. So the smaller the size of the particles, the larger the amount of surface area compared to the mass of the rock.
ANNE JAY:
So what are they gonna do with it?
NEIL EDWARDS:
So the idea is to spread basalt, in this case. Any silicate mineral, in principle, would do. But basalt, there’s lots of it, as you say. If you spread basalt on vegetated areas – if it’s powdered like that, so it has more surface area, and that surface area is where the reactions occur, so that means a more reactive surface – that, basically, will enhance the process of weathering.
ANNE JAY:
So are we going to get farmers in India to sprinkle basalt over their fields?
NEIL EDWARDS:
Well, that’s the suggestion. The question is, can it be done at the scale that’s needed to actually make a difference?
ANNE JAY:
How much is this rock project going to cost?
NEIL EDWARDS:
OK, well, that’s the $64 million question – or even the $60 trillion question. We don’t really know. But we do know that it’s a lot of money, because we’re basically talking about a process that’s going to be carried out over a large proportion of the Earth’s surface area. So, if you imagine spreading a kilogram of rock per square metre over your back garden, that might cost a certain fraction of your gardening budget for the year. If you multiply that by 20 billion people, you’re talking about a major cost. What we do know, though, is that the costs are dominated by the grinding and pulverising of the rock.
But there are other options there, because we know there are large amounts of volcanic ash, glacial tills, and also residues from mine-- waste products from mining that could be used instead. So that’s another issue. Would that make it a lot cheaper? And the answer is probably yes.
ANNE JAY:
So, Neil, what’s your role in this rock scattering exercise?
NEIL EDWARDS:
OK. Well, our role in this rock scattering exercise is to use computer models to study the interaction between the different components of the Earth system. But in particular, what we’re interested in is the interaction between the natural Earth system and what you might call a socioeconomic Earth system. The agricultural economy is involved, so there’s the issue of how the agricultural economy responds to changes in how we use the land surface, and how plants respond in terms of the biogeochemistry of plant growth.
ANNE JAY:
Well, thank you very much Neil.
NEIL EDWARDS:
Thank you.
End transcript: Video 4.3 Rock weathering
Video 4.3 Rock weathering
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
OUFL_1009

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371