The recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis has stepped up a gear in the last few years, but with one depressing report on the global issue after another, you can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed and wondering what can actually be done?
In the run-up to the recent UN climate action summit in New York, the first annual Global Climate Restoration Forum was held, to discuss emerging technologies, radical ideas, and occasionally controversial methods of tackling global heating. From ways to claw back CO2 emissions to how to stop the rapidly melting poles, geoengineering – once the remit of mad scientists and terrible sci-fi disaster movies – is being considered in a whole new light.
One of those ideas is an innovative way to not just prevent but actually restore the rapidly melting glaciers, ice sheets, and sea ice in the Arctic, which is currently warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth.
The solution, according to scientists at the aptly named non-profit Ice911 (“Take action for a cooler planet”), is to liberally scatter silica beads as fine as sand onto the ice to prevent it from melting by reflecting back the Sun’s rays.
Reflective ice and snow are key to preventing the Earth from overheating. White surfaces like these reflect most of the radiation from the Sun’s rays back into space, keeping the planet cool and preventing further melt. Reduced ice and snow that reveal darker surfaces like the ground, sea, or meltwater absorb more of this energy, trapping it as heat so the global temperatures rise and more ice melts. It’s a vicious cycle.
However, the scale and speed of ice being lost right now are extraordinary. Summer 2019 Arctic sea ice levels tied for the second-lowest ever recorded. During a heatwave in June, Greenland lost 60 billion tonnes of ice in just five days, including the most amount of ice lost in a 24-hour period since records began. Climate models predict that Arctic summers could be ice-free in 20 years, and the latest IPCC report showed how it’s the oceans and ice that are absorbing the brunt of the climate crisis.
Ice911’s solution is to increase the reflectivity of the Arctic ice, preventing further melting, and allowing more ice to build up. To do this, they’ve created tiny hollow silicate glass microspheres that can be sprayed onto ice and snow to increase reflectivity.
Made from silicon dioxide, or “silica”, a compound made from two of the most abundant materials found on Earth, silicon and oxygen, Ice911 insists this is the safest choice for both ecosystem and local wildlife. Silica occurs naturally in land, rocks, and dissolved in the sea. The main threat to living creatures would be inhaling or ingesting particles under 10 micrometers, which is why they've purposely created the spheres to be 35 micrometers, and chose silica because it doesn't bioaccumulate in humans or animals.
So far, results of this method have been promising. A peer-reviewed paper published last year revealed that a field test in Alaska increased reflectivity by 15-20 percent. Climate modeling shows the beads can reduce Arctic average temperatures by 1.5°C, increase ice volume by 10 percent over 40 years, and increase average ice thickness by 20-50 centimeters.
Obviously covering the entire Arctic in these beads is rather impractical, it's an area around 14.5 million square kilometers (5.5 million square miles). Dr Leslie Field, founder and CEO of Ice911, and her team have also been using modeling to identify the most at-need areas, and the best forms of distribution have not been finalized. There are other challenges and questions that need answering before this plan can become a reality, too.
Though not the most expensive geoengineering solution proposed to tackle repopulating the Arctic ice, the deployment will still cost around $5 billion, though one could argue this is small-fry compared to the cost of the climate crisis. According to the National Burea of Economic Change, that cost could be 7 percent of the global GDP by the end of the century – closer to 10 percent for rich countries like the US.
Another aspect that has to be considered is whether this is a stop-gap or quick fix, that may detract from the underlying issue of preventing the ice melting in the first place by limiting the emissions we put out.
What is obvious is time is running out, and if slowing down the melting Arctic could buy us some time to implement real change and long-lasting solutions at a global level, then any idea, no matter how crazy it sounds, is worth pursuing.