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Could Sprinkling Sand Save the Arctic’s Shrinking Sea Ice?

Pilot project at northern Alaska lake is one of many aiming to slow climate change with geoengineering, and raising concerns about unintended consequences

By Oliver Milman

As a test location for a project that aims to ensure the livability of Earth, a frozen lake near the northern tip of Alaska could seem rather inauspicious.

photo of sea ice in AlaskaPhoto by Andrew PetersenSea ice near Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Researchers will be sprinking tiny spheres of reflective sand on a lake near Utqiaġvik to see if this can prevent the lake from melting.

While the North Meadow Lake near Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, may be relatively nondescript, it will be the staging ground this month for an ambitious attempt to safeguard the Arctic’s rapidly diminishing sea ice and stave off the most punishing effects of global warming.

Tiny spheres of reflective sand will be sprinkled upon the lake to see if this can prevent the lake ice from melting or slow the process down. Should testing prove successful, the project, called Ice911, has the grand vision of slathering around 19,000 sq miles of sea ice — equivalent to the size of Costa Rica — with trillions of sand grains in order to stem the loss of ice cover and prevent runaway climate change.

“The ice in the Arctic isn’t going to come back by itself,” said Leslie Field, founder of Ice911. “And we don’t have much time left.”

Field, a Silicon Valley engineer and researcher who worked for Chevron and HP, said she was inspired to intervene in the Arctic after seeing Al Gore’s climate change parable An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

“It hit me like a train,” she said. “The importance of the Arctic just leapt out to me."

“I looked at it and thought: ‘What if this is a materials problem?’ You go through the list of things that aren’t adding pollution or foods to the environment and it’s a fairly short list. I’ve been through a few options and this one has legs.”

For the past decade, Field has been testing out various materials that might provide a protective barrier to the winnowing sea ice, conducting tests in barrels of water in laboratories, on lakes in California and Canada, on a pond in Minnesota.

Testing is now set to take place in the tundra of the Alaskan Arctic, near a research station where scientists generally observe changes in sea ice, rather than attempt to halt or reverse them. Scientists flock to Utqiaġvik to survey seabirds or gather data from boreholes in the tundra — there are about 80 beds in austere cabins at the Barrow Arctic Research Center and all will be full this summer.

“Leslie is kind of a one-off,” said Nagruk Harcharek, a senior official at the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, which operates the research centre. “I think her dream is to go pretty big time. Whether that’s realistic and is going to save the world, I don’t know.”

Field is attempting to resurrect the reflectivity lost by the Arctic as sea ice has receded due to a warming atmosphere and ocean. Sea ice is being lost at a rate not seen in at least 1,500 years, with NASA calculating it is disappearing by about 13 percent a decade.

In March, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic had reached a seasonal maximum of 5.59 million square miles — the second-lowest peak extent in the 39-year satellite record. Scientists forecast that Arctic sea ice could completely vanish in summertime by the 2040s.

As sea ice is lost, it locks the Arctic into a downward spiral. Less stark white reflective surface, or albedo, means more dark ocean, which absorbs sunlight rather than repels it, thus speeding up the warming process and spurring further melting. Older multi-year ice, 10-feet-thick in places, accounted for just 1 percent of the winter ice pack last year, meaning the sea ice that remains is now largely composed of newer, thinner, and less reflective ice.

Field claims that her solution could save what’s left. Tiny balls of silica, measuring less than the breadth of a human hair, should reflect 90 percent of the sun’s heat. This “emergency first aid” is framed as a chance for the world to be afforded more time to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The cost and logistics are daunting, however. It’s unclear how the sand grains will be distributed, although Field prefers the idea of ship-based deployment rather than using aircraft.

Field isn’t targeting the whole Arctic region — instead focusing on areas such as Fram Strait, between Greenland and the Norwegian island of Svalbard — but the cost to festoon 19,000-square-miles of ice in silica would still be around $750 million, not including labour.

The continual funding for such an effort will have to come from private donors, or the UN, or perhaps the World Bank. That, too, isn’t certain as yet, despite a “large-scale launch” of ice covering earmarked for 2020.

“It’s not chump change, but compared to other options it’s cost effective,” she said. “It’s a matter of trying to prevent the horrific list of things, such as sea level rise, storms, and so on, that will come from climate change. Things that will cost us trillions, not billions.”

Ice911 isn’t the only direct environmental intervention, known as geoengineering, plotted for the Arctic.

A team of scientists at Arizona State University want to add an extra meter of sea ice to the Arctic’s current thickness by spending $500 billion on a network of 10 million wind-powered pumps that would be used to push seawater on to the surface of the ice where it would freeze.

“Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels,” lead physicist Steven Desch said last year. “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.”

In the Paris climate accords, world governments agreed to a 2 degree Celsius warming limit. Most plausible forecasts concede this won’t be possible with emissions reductions and renewable energy ramp-ups alone. Some sort of technology that captures carbon or removes it directly from the atmosphere will be needed.

No such viable technology exists at any sort of scale, but a number of geoengineering projects of various hues (Field calls her option “soft” or “eco” geoengineering) have in recent years jostled to forge a breakthrough.

There is the plan to use 16 trillion miniature robots to deflect the sun’s heat away from Earth; or the project to pump aerosols into clouds in order to “brighten” them and bolster their reflective power. Another scheme, devised by the scientist who developed Australia’s polymer bank notes, is trialling a thin “sun shield” to be placed over parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which has recently suffered from severe coral bleaching.

A separate project, led by the Harvard physicist David Keith, plans to head to Tuscon, Arizona, this year to launch the “StratoCruiser” — a high-altitude balloon equipped with sensors that will spray a mist of molecules such as sulfur dioxide or calcium carbonate into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and spur cloud formation. Harvard’s solar geoengineering program has received funding from Bill Gates, among other sources.

These and other similar projects have faced criticism over potential unintended pollution, as well as the even more hazardous prospect of handing countries a reason to slow down their emissions cuts in favour of a geoengineering panacea that may never arrive.

János Pásztor, a former UN assistant secretary general for climate change, recently called for a pause in solar geoengineering so that unforeseen risks could be properly explored.

In a speech to Arizona State University, Pásztor singled out Keith’s experiment. “Some time within the next year, we may see the world’s first outdoor experiment on stratospheric aerosol injection take place here in the skies above Arizona, yet for the most part governments are not aware of, nor addressing, the profound governance issues this poses,” he said.

“We urgently need an open, inclusive discussion on how the world will research and govern solar geoengineering. Otherwise we could be in danger of events overtaking society’s capacity to respond prudently and effectively.”

Some scientists are also wary about interventions to restore Arctic sea ice, broadly following the same precautionary principle that tweaking the composition of an ecosystem can have far-reaching ramifications, such as unleashing the cane toad in Australia or allowing feral hogs to run rampant in Texas.

“I think there are good intentions to solve this difficult problem,” said Cecilia Bitz, an Arctic sea ice expert at the University of Washington. “I don’t fault people looking for geoengineering solutions but I believe it will be cheaper and more effective to reduce our emissions.”

Bitz said she was “not very optimistic” about Ice911’s plan as it creates “very small particulates that are very dangerous for ecosystems”, despite Field’s assurances that the silica will be harmless to wildlife.

“You could put a big sheet on top of the ice instead, I suppose, but that could trap seals,” said Bitz. “The idea of spraying seawater on top of the ice is interesting and potentially effective, but it’s very costly. All of these solutions would be very expensive. We need to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions, first and foremost.”

Even if the silica proves benign to the Arctic environment, keeping a lid on warming in the region could backfire anyway, according to Julienne Stroeve, senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“Weather patterns and ocean currents bring excess heat to the poles to balance out the planet, so you might invigorate those warming systems,” she said. “It might all be a bit futile.”

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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