Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with temperatures near the North Pole hitting an unheard-of 20°C (36°F) warmer than average last year, things in the Arctic are undeniably grim right now. But rather than sit by and watch as the sea ice disappears from the region at an unprecedented rate, scientists have hatched a crazy plan to ‘refreeze’ the Arctic, by installing some 10 million wind-powered pumps over the ice cap to spray sea water over the surface and replenish the sea ice.
“Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels, it’s a good idea, but it is going to need a lot more than that to stop the Arctic’s sea ice from disappearing.” lead researcher and Arizona State University physicist, Steven Desch, toldThe Guardian.
A new paper outlining the team’s plan to ‘refreeze’ the Arctic estimates that 10 million wind-powered pumps could add an extra metre of sea ice onto the region’s current layer, which would help protect it from the globe’s rapidly increasing temperatures.
“Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice,” he says. “In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly.”
The idea is to erect millions of wind-powered pumps around the Arctic region, which would disperse sea water onto the icy surface to freeze as an extra layer and thicken up the ice cap. The team predicts that pumping 1.3 metres of water on the surface will result in the ice being thicker by 1 metre (3.2 feet). In other words, that’s 7.5 kg per second of water (16.5 pounds), or 27 metric tonnes per hour.
“It is noteworthy that half of the Arctic sea ice currently has a mean annual thickness of only 1.5 metre [4.9 feet],” they report. “Adding 1 metre of ice in the course of one winter is a significant change.”
They also note that adding 1 metre will be like pushing time back by 17 years.
“Implementation over the entire Arctic in the early 2030s – in one year adding 1 metre of ice – would reset the clock to the present day, instead of the largely ice-free summer state one expects by the 2030,” they conclude.
“The area of the Arctic Ocean is about 107 km2 [41 miles2]. If the wind-powered pumps are to be distributed across 10 percent of that area, this would necessitate about 10 million wind-powered pumps; if distributed across the entire Arctic, about 100 million would be needed. [I]t would require a wind turbine with blades on order 6 metres in diameter [19 feet], with weight on the order of 4,000 kg of steel [8,818 pounds]. To keep this afloat would require the buoy contain a roughly equal weight of steel. As a round number, we estimate about 10,000 kg of steel [22,046 pounds] would be required per device.”
They add that to build a fleet of 10 million pumps, it would require roughly 10 million tons of steel per year. If you wanted to deploy pumps over the entire Arctic, you’d need 100 million tons of steel per year.For comparison, the US currently produces about 80 million tons of steel annually, and world production of steel is 1,600 million.
Yep, it’s just… wow.
This isn’t the first time that researchers have seriously considered ‘geoengineering’ the Arctic in response to human-caused warming. Previous proposals have included artificially whitening the Arctic by dispersing bright aerosol particles over the ice to help reflect solar radiation back into space, or creating artificial clouds above the region that would prevent the heat from getting to the surface in the first place – something that NASA is about to do to investigate aurorae.
This new project has an estimated price tag of around US$500 billion, which means multiple governments around the world would have to commit funds to pay for the astronomical costs of setting up what is essentially a giant air-conditioning system around the Arctic. But with the region warming faster than anywhere else on the planet right now, and political efforts to decrease CO2 emissions so far proving ineffective, the risk is we’ll lose much of the Arctic’s summer sea ice in the next couple of decades and that will have untold effects not just on the local ecosystems, but the world at large.
Not only would we lose already dwindling species like polar bears and Arctic cod, but if all that ice disappears, we’ll lose one of the biggest mechanisms Earth has for reflecting solar radiation back into space. As Mark Fischetti reports for Scientific American, the difference between Arctic temperatures and those seen across the midlatitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia last 2016 was the smallest in recorded history.
And that appears to be triggering extreme weather near the equator, such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy snowfalls, by causing big swings in the jet stream – ribbons of very strong winds that move weather systems around the globe.
“The records [for the Arctic] are astounding because there are so many of them. The extra warming that is happening up in the Arctic – the ‘Arctic amplification’ – has been the greatest we’ve ever seen, what we think is happening is that amplification is favouring these very wavy patterns in the jet stream. When those waves get large, we tend to see very persistent weather patterns across midlatitudes.” Jennifer Francis from the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University told Fischetti.
Extreme events that are being investigated for their connection to the Arctic messing with the jet stream are the California drought, recent ‘snowmageddon’ winters in the US and Siberia, and extreme flooding in the UK. We’re not just headed for some unprecedented and difficult-to-predict weather fluctuations – we’re already living with them. Desch argues that current government plans to curb the effects of climate change aren’t going to be near enough to save the Arctic, because it’s already warming twice as fast as climate models predicted only a few years ago.
“The situation is causing grave concern, it is now much more dire than even our worst case scenarios originally suggested.” Julienne Stroeve from University College London, who isn’t involved in the project, told Robin McKie at The Guardian.
Let’s be real here – this project is so big, it’s never going to happen in its current form. But maybe it’s time humans considered taking a risk and tried something crazy – because we’re starting to see just how dangerous it’s going to be to stick to the status quo.