“Rocking the Cure” for Climate Change

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 19, 2010 12

The Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, are famous for being one of only a few places where mantle rock, such as peridotite, is visible on the Earth’s surface. ©Joanna Poe, flickr

As each one of your incandescent light bulbs burns out, you change it to a compact fluorescent. You’ve promised yourself that you’ll never again buy water in a plastic bottle, and you dutifully refill your aluminum canteen from the tap. When you travel, you always buy carbon offsets. On a personal level, you feel you’ve taken every small step that you can to help stop global warming.

Then a plain, everyday rock—yes, just a rock—upstages you.

Peridotite is the most common rock found in the Earth’s mantle, the layer just below the crust. Every continent, except perhaps Antarctica, contains substantial amounts of it. And in some places on our planet, such as in the nation of Oman, it lies right on the surface. What makes peridotite so special is that it could “cure” global warming.

Peridotite can sequester gaseous CO2 into a geologically stable solid. ©Laurel F, flickr

Sucking Up CO2

During fieldwork in Oman’s desert, two scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York (geologist Professor Peter Kelemen and geochemist Dr. Juerg Matter) found that exposed peridotite reacts with the global-warming carbon dioxide in the air, absorbing up to 100,000 tons of the greenhouse gas each year and transforming it into a solid mineral (such as limestone or marble). They estimate that the exposed peridotite in Oman alone could “sequester” four billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide a year, or one-seventh of the 30 billion tons the world emits annually.

Furthermore, Kelemen and Matter say that simple and relatively inexpensive drilling into the peridotite deposits and then injecting them with heated water enriched with pressurized CO2 captured from power plants could speed up the process of locking the carbon dioxide in the rocks by 100,000 times or more.

Once set in motion, the carbon-capturing process would start building upon itself. The reaction would naturally generate heat, in turn that heat would hasten the reaction, fracturing large volumes of rock. The newly fractured rocks would then be exposed to reactions with still more CO2-rich solution. Since the farther down you drill, the higher the temperature gets, heat generated by the Earth itself also would help. Kelemen and Matter propose that such a chain of events would need little energy input to sustain itself after it was first jump-started.

If our environmental wrongs could be reversed, would we naturally slide back into our old, harmful ways, such as deforestation? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

But Are We the Ones Being Sucked In?

A recent U. S. Geological Survey study reported that our country’s East and West Coasts contain enough peridotite-like rock to soak up more than 500 years’ worth of future U.S. carbon emissions. And Dr. Matter has been working on a separate project in Iceland involving volcanic basalt. He thinks that rock also shows promise for sponging up CO2 in the atmosphere.

Could rocks such as peridotite and basalt, after all, be the magic “cure” to the global warming crisis that we’ve been looking for? And if the solution lies in something as simple as rocks—and our past sins and trespasses on the environment can be quickly reversed—will we naturally slide back into our old, comfortable global-warming habits, such as gas-guzzling cars and deforestation? Or should we keep trying to live lightly as players within the planet’s carbon cycle, from one burned-out light bulb to the next?

Depending on just ONE THING to fix the problem of rapid climate change and take care of everything for us could wind up being a big mistake. As every traveler knows, a journey to anywhere is made up of several small steps.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Esme Fisher May 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Incandescent light bulbs will soon be phased out because they waste a lot of energy.`:;

  2. Max Wood April 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    Climate Change is really scary, now we have super typhoons and a lot of flooding going on some countries….”

  3. Helen Iltis April 25, 2010 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Great article!

  4. Travis April 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    Never underestimate the power of rock.

  5. Ed Kline April 22, 2010 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    Nature moves in cycles. Most of us think in terms of 1 year because this fits with the changing seasons. Politicians think in terms of 2 or 4 years since that fits with election cycles. Nature thinks in much longer peiods of time. We have been at the end of a warming cycle and for the last 4-5 years seem to be sliding away from that – The temperatures have been a bit lower for the last 4-5 cycles which confounds the computer experts since GI-Go does not correspond. In a few years we will really know what is going on, so until then keep an open mind. Meanwhile consider the flash frozen mammoths in Alaska and Siberia and try to fingure how that occurred with fresh buttercups in their mouths and stomachs (we have no equipment that could do that today) and remember, it is always good to take care of the earth! Ed

  6. Muriel Shiff April 22, 2010 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Amazing, if it truly works…but then think of penicilin (mold) curing just about any malady. Does this mean that the earth will really be able to rock and roll?

    • Carlyn Kline April 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm - Reply

      We remember Dennis telling us about peridotite,which formed the lunar -like landscape in the Tablelands at Gros Morne. He told us that it was igneous rock that is toxic to life, which is why the old growth forest is only inches high. Interfering with the natural world may produce unexpected results, making the cure worse than the disease.

  7. Art Hardy April 21, 2010 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Wow! After all the scenarios having to do with global warming and cleaning up our environment, to think that rocks could contain part of the answer!

  8. NineQuietLessons April 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    The sad truth of the matter is that there probably won’t be enough public pressure for a comprehensive response to human-caused climate change until the effects of climate change become too extreme to ignore…by which point it will be too late to do anything.

    For that reason, it’s crucial to have techniques like this available, that can sequester CO2 and help reverse the damage done. That said, sequestering greenhouse gasses is only part of the solution, and these techniques will be of limited effectiveness if our continued greenhouse gas production outstrips what seqeuestering techniques can do.

    • NineQuietLessons April 21, 2010 at 2:00 pm - Reply

      In other words, if X= amount of excess greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere now, and Y= amount we produce in a year, and Z= amount of gas we can remove per year, then Z > Y to actually reverse the process of climate change.

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