Imagine a desert half the size of the Sahara. Now imagine it being flooded by 238 trillion gallons of desalinated ocean water, Creating millions of 1-acre-square micro-reservoirs to grow enough algae to gobble up all of Earth’s climate-changing carbon dioxide. How about using the water and fertilizer (the dead algae) to grow a vast new forest of oxygen-producing trees?
A Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Y Combinator, revealed the radical desert flooding plan as one of 4 “moonshot” scenarios that it hopes innovators will explore as potential remedies to catastrophic global warming.
But would this work? And should this even be tried?
With unlimited capital and political will, both far from given, experts said that the scheme would stand a chance of reducing the dangerous amount of greenhouse gas levels. But while they generally believe the climate crisis has become serious enough to push even the extreme options onto the table, the experts warned against interventions that might create as many problems as they solve.
They don’t want to have this be purely profit driven. They are trying to benefit the planet, not just make money. So they need this kind of research and development first, but then oversight and governance over how any of it is deployed.
The Y Combinator proposal grows out of what’s now the consensus of climate scientists, that humanity needs to move beyond slowing down of production of carbon dioxide and begin taking care of the excess levels of the gas already damaging Earth’s atmosphere.
The startup accelerator that helped the finance Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit asked innovators last month to come forward with specific proposals on this desert flooding and three other extreme plans for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations. The existential threat posed by the climate change requires research into solutions that the investment firm itself conceded could be risky or even unlikely to work.
Y Combinator said that it had a rush of interest in the challenge. It denied saying how many took up the desert flooding option. But Y Combinator’s president predicted that in 2019 his firm will fund three companies to pursue the Plan B climate solutions.
Scientists who studied Earth’s ecosystems, climate change and bio-engineering said that further exploration might be warranted. But they quickly cited many reasons that desert flooding is not likely to succeed.
Y Combinator called filling 1.7 million acres of arid land with 2-meter-deep pools of water the largest infrastructure project ever thought of. Just to pump ocean water inland and desalinate it would need an electrical grid far greater than the one Earth now devotes to all other uses.
It’s desert for a reason, said a research professor at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute. Flooding the desert and then keeping the water there, in an already water-poor area with all the evaporation, is simply very hard to imagine.”
Y Combinator doesn’t decline the magnitude of the challenge. Economies of scale, as well as breakthroughs in material science and construction technology, will be necessary for success, its proposal says.