Human intervention: scientists propose plan to help refreeze the melting Arctic

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay between Canada and Greenland above the Arctic circle on July 10, 2008. A new paper from Arizona State University physicists proposes using sea water pumps to facilitate more ice formation in the Arctic. (Photo by Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Arctic could see its first ice-free summer as soon as 2030 as the region continues to warm faster than the rest of the planet.

Some scientists think we’ve reached a point of no return, where no amount of reducing carbon emissions will save the Arctic, and a small group of scientists think it’s time for an intervention to help Mother Nature out.

Douglas MacMartin at Cornell University works in a field called geoengineering, which sounds like a branch of geology or something, but it’s a little more out there than that.

“The idea is any large-scale project that is designed to intentionally deal with some of the consequences of climate change,” he said.

Examples of these large-scale projects are manipulating ocean currents with heat pumps or spraying reflective particles into the troposphere to reflect solar radiation back into space.

It sounds like science fiction, but with math to back it up.

Arizona State University astrophysicist Steve Desch recently published a paper describing his geoengineering idea: placing sea water pumps in the Arctic that would assist nature in making sea ice.

“What we’re proposing doing is helping the ice freeze over 10 percent of Arctic,” he said.

Desch mostly studies the climates of other planets and moons — especially the really icy ones. But he found himself at more and more conferences with scientists focused on planet Earth.

“I came away thinking the problem is urgent, but I didn’t feel like they were addressing solutions or actions we could take, other than reducing CO2,” he said. “That’s when I decided to contribute something.”

The motivation behind Desch’s recent paper is that reducing carbon emissions from our cars and our factories and homes is not enough to reverse global warming.

Basically, desperate times call for proactive and potentially costly engineering measures.

Desch’s plan would require 10 million wind-powered pumps spread out across the sea. They would create a meter of sea ice across 10 percent of the Arctic.

It’s a lot, but not impossible.

“It sounds like a ridiculous number at first,” Desch said, “but on the other hand we make 10 million cars in this country every year.”

Made of steel, each pump would cost about $50,000 to manufacture. The total price tag would be somewhere around $500 billion. Desch says that amount is comparable to the Manhattan Project or the Iraq War.

The plan may be grandiose in scope and cost, but the idea itself is relatively simple. It’s relatively natural as far as geoengineering projects go.

Even Doug MacMartin, the engineer, thinks it’s an elegant solution.

“I grew up in Ottawa where every winter they flood the canal with ice. If it’s going to be a cold night they pump more water on the ice to make it thicker so you can skate on the canal,” he said. “So I’ve always thought why can’t we do that in the Arctic?”

Even if you think of geoengineering as a last resort, scientists like MacMartin don’t want people to stop trying to reduce carbon emissions.

“It seems hard to imagine why one would consider some of the more radical solutions if we hadn’t taken the first step to cut our carbon emissions,” he said.

Anchorage-based climatologist Brian Brettschneider thinks geoengineering projects are starting to sound less crazy than they did a few years ago.

“I’m still an optimist that we can do some dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but maybe we can’t,” he said. “At what point do we say now we’re in emergency mode?”

“Maybe we’re there. I don’t know.”

One thing’s for sure, if and when we can agree that we are there, the geoengineers will be ready.

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