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Strengthening glacial ice may mitigate effects of climate change

Though the future of melting ice caps has been well-documented in the news, that future is not so distant: in August 2019, Iceland’s Okjökull glacier was declared “dead” by the country’s Meteorological Office. In fact, in the past 30 years, climate scientists believe about 10 percent of arctic sea ice has melted. In order to prevent sea level rise and an increase in the emission of greenhouse gases, countries must actively preserve glacial ice to ensure global resilience in the face of climate change.  While measures to address the underlying causes of melting are needed, the effects can be mitigated through the act of physically thickening glacial ice. 

Alaskan Noth Sawyer gllacier sliding into the ocean. Photo by Nicepik.
Alaskan Noth Sawyer glacier sliding into the ocean (Nicepik).

An important part of the world’s systems, the cryosphere, or portions of the earth’s surface where water is a solid form, holds great influence over global temperatures and sea levels. The bright surface of ice tends to reflect light, helping regulate global temperatures. However, as top layers melt and darker ice is revealed, light is absorbed instead of reflected, causing the ice to melt faster and global temperatures to rise. This process is known as a feedback loop,  which has global effects because it leads to an altered polar vortexjet streams, and Gulf Stream. As a result, extreme heat, floods, and droughts are sent towards the United States and cold temperatures towards Europe. Melting also causes land-based glaciers to slide into the ocean, stripping some communities of their water sources. This presents a serious threat to coastal areas across the globe; by 2100, there is a predicted rise in sea levels by 6.6 feet, effectively placing New York, Jakarta, London and the entire island country of Tuvalu underwater.

Though the future may appear grim, the physical thickening of Arctic ice may propose an unlikely mitigation solution. The nonprofit Ice911 creates environmentally and cost-friendly glass microspheres to make young ice reflective. Made of silica, these tiny hollow microspheres are distributed across ice by an automatic material spreader in the springtime. This sand-like substance binds immediately, helping preserve the ice and reflect any incoming solar radiation. This invention would help protect already vulnerable ice from melting. Another option for thickening ice is a tactic often used by the oil industry, but was coined the term Arctic Ice Management by Arizona State University (ASU). This method includes spraying sea water on top of existing sea ice in the wintertime, when temperatures are low and the spray can freeze immediately. In ASU’s 2016 study, in which it proposes using wind powered pumps to strengthen certain sections of the cryosphere, it was shown that the effect “adding one meter of ice to the average thickness of the Arctic is equivalent to instantaneously setting back the clock about 17 years.” However, this would require about 13% of current steel production in the US and an annual cost of $50 billion to complete the job.

The melting of the cryosphere poses a serious threat to world resilience. Resulting in the introduction of extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, melting glacial ice poses a number of risks for not only coastal cities, but also the well-being of the entire human population. While the best solution to reverse the issue remains a shift to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, working to repair and restore weak ice may help to prevent some melting, strengthen the cryosphere, bolster the entire globe’s resilience to climate change. 

 

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News – Iceland’s Okjokull glacier commemorated with plaque

NPR – Arctic is Warming Twice as Fast as World Average

National Geographic – The Big Thaw

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Center for Science Education – Climate and Ice

Inside Climate News – Ice Loss and the Polar Vortex: How a Warming Arctic Fuels Cold Snaps

Inside Climate News – Global Warming is Messing with the Jet Stream. That Means More Extreme Weather. 

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – Stronger evidence for a weaker Atlantic overturning

The New York Times – Glaciers are Retreating. Millions Rely on Their Water.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America – Ice sheet contributions to future sea-level rise from structured expert judgement

The Guardian – ‘One day we’ll disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands

Ic911 – Our Work

JSTOR – Floating Ice Platforms for Oil Exploration in the Arctic Islands

Advancing Earth and Space Science – Arctic ice management

Pacific Standard – Restoring Arctic Ice is the Key to Curbing Climate Change – So Why Are We Ignoring It? 

Time – Here’s What Humanity Must Do Immediately to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change, According to the New U.N. Report