Restoring Arctic Ice Is the Key to Curbing Climate Change—So Why Are We Ignoring It?

This dangerous ice loss can be reversed, and the emerging field of climate restoration is yielding surprising solutions to the challenges of global warming.
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The crew of patrol vessel KV Svalbard and scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research play football on a floe of offshore ice on March 22nd, 2018, in the sea around Greenland, while two armed guards keep watch for polar bears.

The crew of patrol vessel KV Svalbard and scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research play football on a floe of offshore ice on March 22nd, 2018, in the sea around Greenland, while two armed guards keep watch for polar bears.

A series of scientific reports released in the last few months found that Arctic ice is melting at an accelerated and catastrophic rate—the fastest rate in the last 350 years. If it continues at that rate, the Arctic could be completely free of summer ice by the year 2030, or even sooner. The most recent study, which concentrated on the southwest part of Greenland—a region with few large glaciers, and one which was previously not expected to be a significant source of ice loss—found that, if the atmosphere continues to warm, southwest Greenland will become "a major contributor to sea level rise."

What has not been reported widely is that this dangerous ice loss can be reversed, and the emerging field of climate restoration is yielding surprising solutions to vexing problems.

How Arctic Sea Ice Disappeared—and What It Means

Arctic sea ice has lost 80 percent of its volume since 1979, and the Arctic Ocean is increasingly ice-free in the summer. Even more worrisome, last February the Russian freighter Eduard Toll became the first ship to cross the northern route unassisted by icebreaker ships during winter.

The loss of Arctic ice is significant because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, thanks to a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. The 24-hour summer sun shining on blue ocean that was formerly bright ice is responsible for about a third of the warming we are now experiencing; energy from the sun that was once reflected back into space by the ice is now being absorbed into the ocean, causing a vicious cycle of warming.

A warmer Arctic also contributes to the weakening of the polar vortex, sending cold blasts to parts of the Northern Hemisphere at an increasing rate over the past decades, and also has an impact on the jet stream, which was responsible for the extreme heat, floods, and droughts experienced last summer in the United States. A study released last fall found that extreme weather events driven by the jet stream could increase by 50 percent this century.

While changes to the jet stream are sending record heat to parts of the U.S., a weakening of the Gulf Stream caused by melting Arctic ice could send temperatures plummeting in Western Europe. The Atlantic Ocean's circulation is driven by warm Atlantic water flowing north toward the pole, where it drops down to the depths from the surface, cools, and returns southward. As the surface of the Arctic warms, less cold water falls to the depths, thus slowing down circulation throughout the whole ocean. Research published by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research last April found that the system of the Atlantic Ocean is at its weakest point in the past 1,000 years and has weakened by 15 percent since 1950 alone.

And there is now evidence that the Russian permafrost is melting, a development that one climate scientist has called "astounding." A global study released in January found that, between 2007 and 2016, permafrost temperature increased by 0.29 ± 0.12 C, with the greatest warming—0.93 Celsius—occurring in Siberia.

In some areas, the permafrost—ground that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years—has been frozen for millennia, trapping twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere along with methane, which traps 80 times more heat than carbon. The January global study predicts that the release of carbon dioxide and methane will amplify global warming by 0.13 to 0.27 degrees Celsius by 2100 and by up to 0.42 degrees Celsius by 2300. The loss of Arctic ice could double global warming over the next few decades—even if we stop emitting fossil fuels.

Sea ice seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast of Greenland on March 30th, 2017. Scientists say that the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change.

Sea ice seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast of Greenland on March 30th, 2017. Scientists have said the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change.

How Can We Restore Arctic Ice?

In short, along with curbing carbon emissions and halting the current atmospheric warming, we need to restore the Arctic ice. Currently, there are a number of technologies being developed to do just that.

The non-profit Ice911 has spent the past decade testing microscopic reflective "sand"—hollow microspheres that float on water. The microspheres are made from silicon dioxide, otherwise known as silica. The world's oceans currently contain about 2.8 billion million metric tons of silica, which comes from silicon, an element present in 95 percent of the rocks on Earth. When sprayed over water, the reflective sand creates a white slush that mimics the reflective properties of ice—meaning that heat from the sun can be reflected outward rather than being absorbed into the ice and sea. Ice911 has done extensive research and modeling showing that the sand can restore ice to sections of the Arctic; in 2017 and 2018, the organization successfully covered 17,500 and 15,000 square meters (respectively) of Arctic ice with an automated deployment system.

Ice911 hopes to protect 15,000 to 100,000 square kilometers of ice within a few years and claims that the cost of deploying its reflective sand is one-tenth that of other methods being developed. The organization has published a peer-reviewed paper on its methods and technology and is currently working to raise $10 million a year for the next three years to fund further modeling to determine when and where deployment of the sand will have the greatest impact at the lowest cost.

Another technique, ice thickening, is one that has (ironically) been employed for decades by oil companies to build ice roads and islands for oil production. During the winter months, the Arctic is bathed in perpetual darkness, and temperatures can plunge to minus 50 degrees Celsius. When sea water is pumped from below the surface and sprayed on top of existing sea ice, it freezes in a matter of minutes, thickening the ice. One meter of additional sea ice can last throughout the summer, restoring that protective reflective sheet of ice and slowing the warming of the oceans.

Researchers at Arizona State University have proposed using wind-powered pumps in certain sections of the Arctic to rebuild the ice, a process they call Arctic Ice Management. In a 2016 article detailing their work, the scientists reported that models showed that the sun-reflective effect of "adding one meter of ice to the average thickness of the Arctic is equivalent to instantaneously setting back the clock about 17 years." Their analysis found that thickening the ice through their method could counteract a one degree Celsius temperature increase across the Arctic, and thickening the ice by one meter each winter in 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean could potentially offset the decrease in ice thickness that has occurred since 2000.

Of course, it would take a massive amount of energy to achieve this goal; over 10 years, we'd need 10 million wind-powered pumps just to cover 10 percent of the Arctic. Implementing such a scheme would take an organized effort not seen in this country since World War II. Building the pumps alone would require 13 percent of current U.S. steel production per year if we wanted to cover 10 percent of the Arctic. All told, the researchers estimate an annual cost of $50 billion to deploy the wind pumps over this small portion of the Arctic. They acknowledge the enormous ambition of the undertaking, likening it to the Manhattan Project.

But their research shows that the plan is feasible. What they propose is essentially expanding methods that oil companies currently employ to make ice bridges and platforms, but using non-carbon-emitting wind instead of diesel pumps to power the operation. Solutions such as AIM and the reflective sand developed by Ice911 are experimental but viable. They are also vital, as time is running out.

Unfortunately, these and other solutions are not receiving serious attention from governments or mainstream non-governmental organizations because they are not covered by the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which focused on mitigating damage rather than on restoring ecosystems. Arctic ice is disturbingly under-addressed in the IPCC report; in fact, the January global study on the warming permafrost notes that "permafrost change is not yet adequately represented in most of the Earth System Models that are used for the IPCC projections for decision makers."

As a result, scientists working on solutions to restore Arctic ice (and other ways of restoring the climate) are too often left out of the larger conversation entirely. Instead, they have turned to the market for funding, and are busy writing patents and courting investors, rather than writing papers and courting research grants. This arrangement needs to change. The U.N. and the larger climate science community need to expand their mandate to include climate restoration solutions and support research into current and future sustainable and scalable solutions before it's too late.

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