The steady increase in global temperatures has been particularly disastrous for the polar ice caps. Experts warn that if this trend continues, there will be no late summer ice in the Arctic region by the 2030’s. The most effective solution, of course, is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late. But since that is not happening, scientists are frantically trying to come up with alternative ways to try to reverse the situation.
The latest idea comes from a team of researchers led by Arizona State University’s Steven Desch. In the proposal outlined in the journal Earth’s Future in December 2016, the team suggests using large pumps to draw water from beneath the ice and spray it on the surface. Since that is the coldest part, it will cause the water to freeze rapidly. The pumps, kept afloat with buoys, will be powered by the high Arctic winds, harnessed by windmills. To maximize the impact, the process would take place during winter. The scientists believe their idea will help increase the thickness of the ice sheet within days, rather than the months and years it takes to refreeze naturally.
The researchers estimate that ten million pumps would be required to increase the thickness of the ice sheet by about 1-meter over the course of a winter. Given that sea ice normally grows by just two to three meters every winter, the extra meter would make a substantial difference. “Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice," says Desch, "In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly."
Though the idea is certainly intriguing, it is not easy to implement. Desch and his team estimate that the refreezing would cost at least $50 billion USD annually. Since it would take about a decade to restore the Arctic ice shelf entirely, the total cost would add up to over $500 billion USD! Even if the researchers could somehow obtain the funding, many experts are skeptical about the idea, which, thus far, is purely theoretical.
Julienne Stroeve, a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, is among the skeptics. The expert says that global warming caused by the increasing carbon dioxide levels cannot be stopped, even if the ice refreezing works as planned. Also, since the Arctic would continue to receive the excess heat from the lower latitudes through atmospheric and ocean circulation, it would mitigate any refreezing efforts. Desch agrees and admits that his idea is a band-aid, not the solution. However, the astrophysicist argues that the Arctic ice shelf is crucial for our future well-being and we should do everything we can to restore it.
The ice is not only essential for the area's marine life but also to help combat global warming, since it reflects sunlight. Water, on the other hand, absorbs it, causing temperatures to rise further. Additionally, when the ice thaws, it releases the methane trapped inside further contributing towards the greenhouse effect.
Furthermore, the ice helps regulate temperatures on Earth. Jet streams — the high winds that result from the temperature difference between the polar and tropical air masses — help move weather systems around the world. When sea ice decreases, the jet streams weaken, altering global weather patterns. Many researchers suspect that the anomalous weather witnessed in recent years, such as California’s extended drought, Siberia’s ‘Snowmageddon’ winters and the UK’s extreme flooding, have been triggered by the melting of polar ice caps.
This isn’t the first time scientists have suggested a radical idea to combat the adverse effects of global warming at the Arctic. Previous proposals include artificial whitening of the poles by spraying aerosol particles to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and creating artificial clouds to stop the sunlight from reaching the surface altogether. Unfortunately, none of the projects have seen the light of day due to the astronomical costs associated with each. But Desch and his team are not discouraged. They are currently working on building a prototype to show the world that the plan is not as outlandish as it sounds.
Resources: Guardian.co.uk, itechpost.com, Gizmodo.com