ice floe
February 13, 2017

Scientist proposes plan to re-freeze the Arctic using turbines

Could Arctic sea ice decline be slowed by using millions of wind-powered pumps to transport water to the region, where it can freeze and thicken the ice cap? Scientists from Arizona State University seem to think so and have detailed their plan in the journal Earth’s Future.

According to physicist Steven Desch and his colleagues, climate change could cause the Arctic to be ice-free during the late summer months within the next two decades, and it is unlikely that temperatures and greenhouse gasses could be decreased in time to prevent such an occurrence.

“Restoring sea ice artificially is... imperative,” the authors wrote. Fortunately, they have a plan: building 10 million wind-powered pumps above the Arctic ice cap that would be used during the winter, which they argue could increase the thickness of the ice by as much as one meter over the course of the season and “more than reverse current trends of ice loss in the Arctic.”

“Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice. In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly,” Desch said during an interview with the Observer on Saturday. “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.”

The proposed system would be part of a multi-pronged strategy for restoring Arctic sea ice, the researchers said, and while it has the potential to succeed, it would come at a cost - $500 billion, to be specific. It is, in the Observer’s words, “an astonishing sum,” but Desch and his colleagues believe that it may well be necessary to prevent a potential catastrophe in the Arctic.

A hefty price tag, but study authors confident it will work

Why such urgency? Desch explained that the region is currently warming twice as fast as climate models from just a couple of years ago predicted and that the 2015 Paris climate agreement alone will not be enough preventing the sea ice there from disappearing completely during the summer. In fact, he and his colleagues warn that said ice could vanish by as soon as 2030.

Were that to happen, the Observer said, it would cause many of the animals living in the area to become endangered, and could cause the rest of the world to heat at an even greater rate because of the loss of solar radiation-reflecting ice. Ultimately, this would cause weather patterns all over the northern hemisphere to become disrupted and would increase the amount of carbon escaping into the atmosphere due to the melting of permafrost in some regions.

“The rapid and alarming loss of Arctic summer sea ice represents a powerful and detrimental positive feedback in the system that must be arrested to prevent even greater changes to the climate,” Desch and his co-authors wrote. “Given the unlikelihood that the global climate changes that are triggering the loss of ice will be solved by then, we are motivated to investigate means of directly and intentionally increasing the ice thickness.”

“We have considered the feasibility of using wind power to pump seawater from below the ice to the surface, where it can freeze more easily,” they noted. Based on their analysis, they found that the Arctic is home to enough wind power that for every windmill with six meter diameter blades, 1.3 meters of water (equal to 1.4 meters of ice) could be pumped over 0.1 square kilometer of the Arctic during the winter months, increasing ice thickness by nearly one full meter.

Since the mean annual thickness of Arctic ice is approximately 1.5 meters, they explained, this plan could increase the thickness of the ice by about 70% over the course of a winter – enough to counteract the 0.58 meters lost each year due to the changing climate. While the program would be costly, Desch told the Observer, he said that he was “confident” that it would be effective.


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