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Could Making Ice Brighter Slow Climate Change?

A Stanford professor wants to use Arctic sea ice to avoid the scariest parts of climate change.

Could Making Ice Brighter Slow Climate Change?
[Top photo: Robert Bruce Lilley via Shutterstock]

Could we curb the worst effects of climate change by hacking ice?

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That’s the bold proposal of Leslie Field and her nonprofit organization, Ice911. The Stanford professor wants to boost the reflectivity of Arctic sea-ice by impregnating it with various reflective materials, like hollow glass spheres. The hope is that by rebounding more sunlight back into space we can keep the oceans whiter and thus avert the most dire effects of global warming.

zbindere via Shutterstock

As the world continues to spew out carbon emissions, scientists have proposed a series of radical solutions known as geoengineering, which instead of cutting carbon try to ameliorate its impacts. These range from sprinkling the oceans with lime to reduce acidity, to pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to obscure solar radiation.

These ideas are controversial because the effects are uncertain, and because they could do more harm than good. But Field says her ideas don’t take huge risks; they’re reversible in case they have unforeseen consequences.

“I like the idea of it being local and reversible. You could put [the glass spheres] in embedded materials that you could remove,” she says. “I think it’s essential to undo something if you find that there’s an unintended consequence, and I wish some of these other approaches had looked at that.”

Melting Arctic ice represents a climate change double whammy. First, the melting raises sea levels. Second, it creates an “Ice-Albedo Feedback Effect” where younger ice or open water absorbs more heat than the normal multi-year layer. That in turn warms the water further and induces more melting.

In the Arctic, the normal sea covering is all but vanishing in the summer. A 2013 study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that areas with a reflectivity, or albedo, of 75% had disappeared since the 1980s.

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Ice911 is looking at two possible materials to cover the ice. One consists of the aforementioned tiny hollow glass spheres, which would only be 50 to 60 microns wide (about half the diameter of a human hair). This material is widely used for building insulation and in paint, and should be relatively harmless to the environment, Field says. The second is a “kitchen material” that Field won’t name (except to say it’s safe enough to drink).

The company, which Field founded after watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, has conducted seven years of experiments in places like Minnesota and Canada. It now plans to expand into Alaska, where it can test its solutions in real Arctic conditions.

Field stresses she’s not looking to blanket the region with foreign substances. Rather, the idea is to reboot the ice in certain key locations, such as around communities that depend on the ice, or routes through which melting ice reaches the wider ocean.

“We want to stop the loss in order for the [young] ice to become multiyear ice. It’s as gentle a reboot as you can possibly come up with,” she says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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