After freakishly warm weather in the Arctic in late 2016–at times 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal–the amount of sea ice in the region hit a new record low in January. An area the size of Texas and California that would normally be frozen is now open water.
In a little more than a decade (or much less time, depending on who’s making the prediction), the Arctic may be essentially ice-free in the summer. That’s bad news not only for polar bears but for all of us: If ice disappears and no longer reflects sunlight, the whole planet will warm up faster.
A new study offers an extreme solution. If we covered ice in tiny wind-powered pumps, say researchers from Arizona State University, we could potentially pump seawater onto the surface of the ice during the winter. As the water freezes and thickens, it could help the ice survive the next summer.
“Essentially we want to prevent losing the sea ice completely because we want to retain that natural reflective cooling that the temperature budget of the Earth already has,” study co-author Hilairy Hartnett, an oceanographer at Arizona State University, tells Co.Exist.
Reducing emissions, on its own, is unlikely to be enough to halt the rapid loss of Arctic ice. Since 1979, Arctic ice has declined roughly 13% a decade. Many of the pledges made to reduce emissions for the Paris agreement have deadlines of 2030, the point at which summer ice is likely to be gone; even if emissions were reduced sooner, summer ice is likely to disappear.
The paper suggests that the pumps could work–though covering the entire Arctic cap would require 100 million pumps (installed over ten years, at 10 million a year) and cost $5 trillion, comparable to the expense of the Iraq War.
Hartnett argues that it’s time to talk about the possibility of large-scale interventions in addition to the emission-reduction work already happening. “I come from a background of an oceanographer, and I think at planet scale,” she says. “I do believe that the problems of the Anthropocene, particularly climate and the CO2 in the atmosphere, are planet-scale problems, and that we need to begin to think about planet-scale solutions.”
While others have proposed different geoengineering schemes, the researchers think this one has some advantages. “It does not involve chemically altering the atmosphere,” she says. “It does not involve things that will acidify the surface of the ocean. It is taking and amplifying a natural process.”
Of course, it could also create problems–and it isn’t clear who would decide something like this needs to be done, or how to pay for it. It isn’t even necessarily clear that it would succeed. But the researchers hope to get funding to build prototypes and continue to study the possibility.
“Maybe it’s audacious to ask the question of could we do it,” says Hartnett. “But I think we have to have that conversation.”