A team of scientists from Arizona State University have proposed a crazy plan to save the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic. They suggest that by building millions of wind-powered water pumps on the polar ice cap, we could replenish and thicken the ice every winter.
Arctic sea ice goes through phases every year. During long, cold winters the ice thickens and spreads, only to melt somewhat during summer. Unfortunately, due to increasing temperatures, the sea ice cap has been diminishing in size—it’s melting more than it re-freezes.
Minimum ice cover at the Arctic has been decreasing by 13 percent every decade, and last year ice even began melting in mid-November, causing unprecedented sea ice loss so late in the year. (Read about the tipping point of Arctic ice melt.)
By pumping water onto the surface of the ice and thus replenishing an extra metre of thickness each winter, we could significantly slow down the erosion of the polar cap, researchers argue. Their idea has been published this week in the journal Earth’s Future.
“Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels,” lead author Steven Desch told The Guardian. “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.”
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The researchers have run the numbers on their ice replenishing strategy—covering just 10 percent of the Arctic would require 10 million pumps, which would be pumping 27 tonnes of water per hour.
“This water must be pumped using local energy sources, which in the Arctic winter means using wind,” they write. “Fortunately, wind is plentiful in the Arctic.”
Thus these pumps would have to be connected to powerful wind turbines, drawing energy from the intense Arctic wind speeds that average at 6 metres per second.
“The basic components of such a device would include: a large buoy; a wind turbine and pump, drawing up seawater from below the ice; a tank for storing the water; and a delivery system that takes the water periodically flushed from the tank and distributes it over a large area,” states the report.
Arctic sea ice supports polar bear and seal populations, and also protects the region from mining and oil companies, which could significantly disrupt life for indigenous communities and the pristine natural habitat.
While it’s difficult to predict the true impact of losing the entire ice cap (we have never experienced such an event), we do know that the dazzling white sheets of ice reflect more solar radiation that the relative dark ocean waters. Without this reflective shield, our atmosphere could trap even more heat, causing the system to spiral. (Also read: 11 ways to see how climate change is threatening the Arctic.)
The authors stress that even if we did create this mind-boggling fleet of pumps (which would cost roughly $650 billion and require some 10 tonnes of steel every year, with greenhouse gas emissions to boot), “this would not “solve” all the problems of anthropogenic climate change.”
“Our goal is to demonstrate feasibility and to provide insights into the scale of the devices,” they write. “A more detailed design, to be undertaken in conjunction with Arctic engineers is deferred to future investigations.”
Geoengineering ideas such as this one are often floated in an effort to draw public attention to climate change. The authors state that their hope is to start a serious discussion in the scientific community, along with public discussion of artificial alterations to our planet’s climate system. It’s probably better than sitting back and doing nothing.