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26 April 2017

The Ambitious Plan to Artificially Refreeze the Arctic

“As the Earth's climate has changed, Arctic sea ice extent has decreased drastically. It is likely that the late-summer Arctic will be ice-free as soon as the 2030s. This loss of sea ice represents one of the most severe positive feedbacks in the climate system, as sunlight that would otherwise be reflected by sea ice is absorbed by open ocean. It is unlikely that CO2 levels and mean temperatures can be decreased in time to prevent this loss, so restoring sea ice artificially is an imperative.”

This is the alarming opening to a research article published by Steve Desch, a professor of astrophysics at the School of Earth & Space Exploration at Arizona State University, in the journal Earth’s Future back in January. The article, titled ‘Arctic Ice Management’, goes on the lay out a highly ambitious plan to deal with the severe deterioration of the Arctic ice shelf, using 10 million wind-powered pumps to pump water onto the surface of the ice during winter months. The water would then freeze and thereby thicken the weakening ice cap, the article claims.

Img: John Christoph & Sue Selkirk
With the rate of warming in the Arctic continuing to break records year-on-year, now is the time to look at such methods, ambitious as they may be.

“Every year, there is more ice melting in the summer and less freezing in the winter,” Professor Desch told CNBC. “We're losing 300 cubic kilometres per year on average. The Arctic is losing ice the size of an ice cube that's 4 miles on each side (that's 64 cubic miles annually).”

With the damage already done to the Arctic environment believed to be beyond the point of no return, artificially refreezing the Arctic may be our only way forward. Professor Desch’s proposal to do so using mechanical means could well be our best option, as he argues that the lack of chemicals and other such pollutants makes it the only way to achieve the desired results with no negative impact on local ecosystems.

“One advantage of our approach over other geoengineering ideas is it's purely mechanical,” he said. “We're not introducing any new chemicals into the environment. We're proposing accelerating a process that naturally should be occurring, and trying to restore the ice to the point where it was 20 years ago.”

The required technology for Professor Desch’s proposal is, on the face of it, relatively simple.

“Imagine a buoy bigger than a minivan, with a wind turbine on top. One device could pump up enough water to increase the thickness of the ice by one meter over an area one-tenth of a square kilometre.”

You may now be wondering, is the proposed approach is so simple, why we haven’t attempted anything of the kind before. The answer to that one, in large part, comes down to the price tag.

“We would need 10 million devices, at $50,000 per device,” Desch says.

That totals up to a price of $500 billion for the project as a whole, so where does Professor Desch suggest finding this monetary requirement?

“This is sort of Manhattan Project or Iraq War in scope, so it's not impossible if we make it a priority,” he said. “If you want to reverse that situation, you want to do something big. It's not impossible. It's big, but it's not impossible.

“We don't think any one person would unilaterally do this, or should. A project this size needs a government to get involved, and the restoration of sea ice is important at a local scale as well. Coastal erosion is accelerating and permafrost is dying, so I can imagine starting on a smaller scale there.”

He further suggested staggering the project over a period of 10 years in order to lessen the hardship of implementation, in terms of both workload and funding.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.