Several new cities in China will be geoengineering experiments, where developers are leveling hundreds of mountains, filling valleys, and building on top of the newly-flattened land. Now, Chinese scientists and engineers are saying these projects are based on shoddy research, and must be stopped.

Since 2010, several mountainside cities in China, including Lanzhou and Shiyan, have begun expanding. Instead of building on the difficult slopes of local mountain ranges, developers decided to smash up the mountains and use the loose soil to fill in ravines and valleys. This is the very definition of geoengineering, the practice of remolding massive parts of the Earth and its ecosystems. Below, you can see how much Shiyan's landscape has changed in just a short period of time since the city began reshaping mountains.


The problem? The Chinese government, which funds these projects, has done almost no research into their environmental impact.

In an opinion piece published today in Nature, Chang'an University environmental scientists Peiyue Li, Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu say that several mountain-flattening geoengineering projects have already caused countless environmental problems. Soil has run into local rivers, destroying wildlife there; and winds that once tore through the compact mountains with little harm are now stirring up massive dust storms in the loose sands of newly-filled valleys. And water shortages are likely to become a problem. Compact mountain soils, full of vegetation and tree roots, retain a lot more water than the loose soils of a new landfill.


Li, Qian and Wu call for their government to conduct tests before undertaking more geoengineering projects. But they seem to be in a losing battle.

This isn't just a problem confined to China, or to government-guided projects. Two years ago, a private company conducted an illegal geoengineering project off the western coast of Canada. The ocean fertilization effort, which was in violation of U.N. regulations, caused an enormous algae bloom in the ocean, but did not draw carbon down out of the atmosphere as the company had hoped. In fact, it's likely that the project created more carbon, and thus more carbonic acid in the ocean.


Just like the projects going on in China, this ocean fertilization experiment was almost impossible to regulate. The U.N. is nominally expected to regulate projects like this, and a geoengineering group at University of Oxford has drafted a series of principles that they suggest governments use to determine whether a geoengineering project is ready for launch.

At stake is the fact that geoengineering experiments can potentially affect the ecosystems of the entire planet. A failed test that changed the weather, or the ocean's acidity, could even be viewed as an act of war. Perhaps more importantly, one country's test could become another country's nightmare, causing unintended crop failures or water shortages.


And yet we see almost no regulation of geoengineering because it's still viewed as something too futuristic or outlandish for us to worry about. But these experiments are happening all the time, and they're only going to happen more often. When will we start to see international collaboration to prevent geoengineering experiments from going wrong?

Read the full article in Nature