Environment Make Sunsets, a startup, says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

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A startup claims it has launched weather balloons that may have released reflective sulfur particles in the stratosphere, potentially crossing a controversial barrier in the field of solar geoengineering.

Geoengineering refers to deliberate efforts to manipulate the climate by reflecting more sunlight back into space, mimicking a natural process that occurs in the aftermath of large volcanic eruptions. In theory, spraying sulfur and similar particles in sufficient quantities could potentially ease global warming.

It’s not technically difficult to release such compounds into the stratosphere. But scientists have mostly (though not entirely) refrained from carrying out even small-scale outdoor experiments. And it’s not clear that any have yet injected materials into that specific layer of the atmosphere in the context of geoengineering-related research.

That’s in part because it’s highly controversial. Little is known about the real-world effect of such deliberate interventions at large scales, but they could have dangerous side effects. The impacts could also be worse in some regions than others, which could provoke geopolitical conflicts.

Some researchers who have long studied the technology are deeply troubled that the company, Make Sunsets, appears to have moved forward with launches from a site in Mexico without any public engagement or scientific scrutiny. It’s already attempting to sell “cooling credits” for future balloon flights that could carry larger payloads.

Several researchers MIT Technology Review spoke with condemned the effort to commercialize geoengineering at this early stage. Some potential investors and customers who have reviewed the company’s proposals say that it’s not a serious scientific effort or a credible business but more of an attention grab designed to stir up controversy in the field.

Luke Iseman, the cofounder and CEO of Make Sunsets, acknowledges that the effort is part entrepreneurial and part provocation, an act of geoengineering activism.

He hopes that by moving ahead in the controversial space, the startup will help drive the public debate and push forward a scientific field that has faced great difficulty carrying out small-scale field experiments amid criticism.

“We joke slash not joke that this is partly a company and partly a cult,” he says.

 
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