Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can We Refreeze the Arctic?  Scientists Are Beginning to Ask

A portion of the Rhône Glacier in Switzerland is covered in blankets to help prevent it from melting. (Credit: Urs Flueeler/Keystone/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
Each summer, residents of the Swiss Alps make their way through the mountains to the edge of the famous Rhône Glacier.  There, fleecy white blankets in hand, they cover up the ice.  They're trying to reflect the sun and prevent the glacier from melting.

The Rhône is one of many glaciers around the world that have noticeably shrunk in recent decades.  The blankets are a simple fix, but they seem to help — Swiss glaciologist David Volken has previously suggested to Agence France-Presse that they may reduce melting by up to 70 percent.

Similar protective coverings are used on other glaciers, as well, in places like Italy and Germany — and scientists have begun to propose higher-tech solutions for the future.  One research group from Utrecht University hopes to save Switzerland's Morteratsch Glacier by blowing reflective artificial snow across its surface, a proposal it presented at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union last spring.  It hopes to eventually secure funding from the Swiss government, after proving the technology in a smaller pilot demonstration.

In a steadily warming world, using technology to protect the planet's glaciers may only prove useful for so long — curbing greenhouse gases and stopping the warming itself is the only true solution.  But some scientists hope that stopgap measures could buy a little time for the world's ice.

Whether these kinds of technological fixes could be useful on a larger scale — that is, on the vast expanses of land and sea ice at the poles — is another question altogether.  But as the clock is ticking, researchers are turning their attention to the ever-more-vulnerable Arctic and Antarctic regions with increasingly ambitious ideas to protect them.

Recent proposals include the use of giant pumps to refreeze vanishing Arctic sea ice — an idea scientists say would not only preserve the landscape but also slow the region's rapid warming — and building huge mounds on the seafloor aimed at preventing warm water from melting glaciers.  A number of these ideas were presented at the American Geophysical Union's conference in December, as reported by Oceans Deeply.

So far, they're just ideas.  But the concept of polar geoengineering — physically manipulating conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic to try to protect the ice, if only temporarily — has been flickering within the scientific community for years.

In 2009, glaciologist Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland suggested covering sections of the Greenland ice sheet with reflective material, similar to the efforts in Europe's mountain glaciers.  He went so far as to demonstrate the process on a small swath of the ice sheet in a project documented on the Discovery Channel's "Ways to Save the Planet" program.

It's uncertain whether this relatively simple idea — let alone more complex technological fixes — could ever be applied at a scale that would make a difference across the Arctic or Antarctic.  Still, it's a field that some scientists believe is worth exploring, because what happens at the poles has such great potential to affect the rest of the world.

Read more at Can We Refreeze the Arctic?  Scientists Are Beginning to Ask

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