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Solutions
| 02/16/17

Artificial ice machines proposed as Arctic emergency brake

TCE

As Arctic winter sea ice hits record lows, one group of researchers is proposing that the ice be artificially restored via a multi-billion-dollar scheme akin to how ski resorts produce artificial snow.

Warm weather in the high north, caused by storms from the north Atlantic Ocean carrying warm air with them saw Arctic sea ice extent averaging just 13.4 million square kilometres in January, the lowest January extent since satellite monitoring began almost four decades ago, according to fresh analysis released this week by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

This is some 260,000 square kilometres fewer than last January, which was also a historic record low, and some 1.26 million square kilometres fewer than the long-term three-decade average.

NASA scientists have said that the 2015-2016 winter was the warmest ever recorded in the Arctic, but are still waiting to see whether the 2016-2017 will similarly break records.

The steady retreat of Arctic sea ice may be a boon to tourism and resource development, but the phenomenon is one of the more worrisome aspects of global warming because the phenomenon is a positive feedback loop. The more sea ice is lost, the less sunlight is reflected back into space by the white snow and ice, and water, which is much darker, absorbs more sunlight. The waters warm, leading to even more sea ice melt. Even if the nations of the world halted all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, this would not be enough to arrest the process. A completely ice-free summer in the Arctic is expected to arrive by 2030.

The grim news up north came as a fantastical idea seemingly out of a bad science fiction film on how to artificially re-freeze the pole was published in a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The proposal involves the construction of wind-powered water pumps sitting on buoys and drawing water up from the ocean that would be stored in a tank. This water would then be sprayed out across the surface of the ice. Here temperatures are much colder than beneath the ice where it is insulated, and will freeze faster.

The researchers estimate that 10 million of the buoy-pump devices would be needed to improve the thickness of the ice by a metre of ice atop current levels. To put this in context, sea ice normally grows 2-3 metres in thickness each winter, so this would mark a significant reversal of current trends.

The scheme would cost a handsome $500 billion dollars per year, or more than a quarter of Canada’s GDP, putting the scheme out of reach for any one country. For comparison the US Apollo program that put humans on the moon cost $110 billion in total in today’s money.

The scientists are quite serious however, and will be testing a prototype of the buoy-pumps later this year. They do not suggest this as an alternative to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but merely what lead researcher Steven Desch describes as a “band-aid” solution to hold on to Arctic sea ice until international climate change mitigation efforts scale up more substantially.

Such a scheme would qualify as a form of geo-engineering, defined as: “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change” by Britain’s Royal Society. In 2009, the society published one of the first major investigations into the challenges of geoengineering, warning that while research on the topic should be undertaken to ensure that tools are available should it become necessary to reduce the rate of warming later this century, there are serious and complex governance issues that need to be resolved before geoengineering could be acceptable. In January, US federal scientists for the first time recommended that the country move ahead with the highly controversial research area.

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Artificial ice machines for the Arctic would cost a quarter of Canada's GDP

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