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Could LASERS help avert climate change? High powered beams can create ice crystals in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight

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  • Swiss scientists fired lasers at ice crystals similar to those in Cirrus clouds
  • In the upper atmosphere these crystals reflect light and heat into space
  • It caused the ice to shatter into many more smaller reflective pieces
  • The approach could be used to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere, which could be used as a means to reduce temperature 

Using laser devices to control the planet’s weather is the stuff of megalomaniacal comicbook super villains.

But scientists have shown they can use lasers to disrupt crystals of ice which form in the upper atmosphere, causing them to shatter.

According to the team, the smaller fragments could increase the amount of light and heat being reflected back into space by the upper atmosphere, having a cooling effect on the climate.

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Ice crystals form Cirrus clouds (pictured) high in the upper atmosphere which reflect the sun's energy back into space. Researchers used lasers to shatter similar ice crystals into tiny shards, increasing the surface area.  The approach could be used to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere and reduce temperatures
Ice crystals form Cirrus clouds (pictured) high in the upper atmosphere which reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Researchers used lasers to shatter similar ice crystals into tiny shards, increasing the surface area.  The approach could be used to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere and reduce temperatures

High up in Earth’s atmosphere, between 6 to 12km (3.7 to 7.5 miles), ice crystals form Cirrus clouds which affect how reflective the planet is.

A team led by researchers at the University of Geneva recreated these atmospheric ice-forming conditions in the lab, creating tiny chunks of ice just 90µm in width.

When these tiny crystals were zapped with bursts of laser energy, it created a tiny ball of plasma inside them, which caused the ice to vaporise.

This vaporisation also generated a shock wave, causing the ice balls to explode and shatter into tiny pieces, multiplying the ice shards in the atmosphere.

Researchers found zapping ice crystals with lasers generates a dusting of far smaller particles ­– transforming a single large reflective object into a fine dust of reflective material. Stock image
Researchers found zapping ice crystals with lasers generates a dusting of far smaller particles ­– transforming a single large reflective object into a fine dust of reflective material. Stock image

In effect, zapping the ice crystals generates a dusting of far smaller particles ­– transforming a single large reflective object into a fine dust of reflective material.

The researchers believe the approach could be used to boost the reflective index, or albedo, of the upper atmosphere, causing more of the sun’s energy to be reflected back into space and tweaking the planet’s climate.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, the authors explain: ‘Our results open prospects to modifying the particle size distribution and, thus, the albedo of cirrus ice particle clouds.’

Scientist believe the approach could offer a promising method for manipulating the weather and studying climate.

Lasers could be used as a targeted means for cloud-seeding, ice-formation and as the Swiss team demonstrated, boosting the reflectiveness of atmosphere.

 When these tiny crystals were zapped with bursts of laser energy, it created a tiny ball of plasma inside them, which caused the ice to vaporise and shatter into smaller pieces (pictured left to right)

When these tiny crystals were zapped with bursts of laser energy, it created a tiny ball of plasma inside them, which caused the ice to vaporise and shatter into smaller pieces (pictured left to right)

Some researchers have suggested that contrails, left by planes in the upper atmosphere, could have an affect on the climate by interfering with the ice forming process and the atmosphere’s albedo.

Water vapour from aircraft exhaust forms ice crystals, which opponents have argues is an unintentional form of geoengineering. However, the evidence is inconclusive.

Research by the Geneva group in 2013 showed the approach of ice multiplication was possible in the lab, but its latest study used high speed cameras shooting 140,000 frames per second to show direct observations of the process.

While the real world application of the approach using lasers is still some way off, technological advances could mean weather rays could one day be commonplace.

Dr Mary Matthews, a researcher at the University of Geneva and first author of the study, told Science News: ‘What we are hoping for is that the advances in laser technology, which are moving faster and faster all the time, will enable high-powered, mobile lasers.’

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