10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 8: Reflective Crops

(Steve Satushek//Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images)

So we're three days into a two-week look at geoengineering plans that might just allow us to counter the effects of global warming. The schemes we've looked at so far have involved planting both real and fake trees to suck up all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today, we have another low-tech means of hacking the planet: reflective crops.

You have to keep two principles in mind for this to make sense. First, it's not the sunlight coming down that does most of the work heating our atmosphere -- it's terrestrial radiation rising up from the surface. Ever seen someone fry an egg on the hood of a car on a hot day? Well that's the same principle in action. This is your atmosphere. This is your atmosphere on terrestrial radiation.

But the surface has to absorb solar radiation to put out heat. The more it reflects, the cooler the air. That's why the atmosphere is cooler over the ocean. It's also the reason that painting your roof white can save you money on cooling. Hey, you feel cooler in a white T-shirt on a sunny day than in a black one, don't you?

The more reflective the surface of the planet, the less heat we're pumping up to be absorbed by greenhouse gases. So while we COULD take a giant paintbrush to the planet, we could also make a difference by planting more reflective vegetation everywhere.

According to New Scientist, a U.K. team from the University of Bristol recently predicted that a planetwide switch to more reflective crops (especially in farm-rich North America and Eurasia) could drop global summer temperatures by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius).

Granted, that's not a huge help, but if used in conjunction with other planet hacking methods and a decrease in carbon emissions, it could help make a difference. Of course, the downside to this is that it would require massive quantities of land and just how reflective can a plant get? Are we talking genetically engineered mirror corn here? Silver potatoes?

Check back tomorrow, and we'll examine yet another planet hacking scheme -- this time IN SPACE. Meanwhile, read all about how both real trees and fake trees can help out.

Absorb some knowledge at at HowStuffWorks.com: How Global Warming Works How Weather Works