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Big Idea

Arctic sea ice is melting. These researchers want to re-freeze it.

Could a common commercial product help slow climate change?

By Eric Niiler

The climate crisis has forced scientists and engineers to think about big ideas to reduce and reverse greenhouse gas emissions — or buy Earth some time until we figure out how. Enter geoengineering, the study of dramatic, planet-scale climate initiatives. Some of the ideas that have been proposed sound like distant science fiction. But some are already being tested.  Here’s a closer look at one potential project.

The problem: Melting Arctic sea ice

Arctic Sea ice forms a reflective blanket across the top of the planet, directing the sun’s rays back into space. That cover is vital to sustain the Arctic ecosystem — it keeps the ocean water cool, providing habitat for marine life below and the seals and polar bears that hunt above. And it’s disappearing. About 40 percent of Arctic sea ice has melted since 1980, and the Arctic itself has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the planet — 1.35°F in the last decade alone.

“It’s becoming clear that without some kind of intervention we are going to have temperature rises that are going to cause more devastation than we are seeing already,” says Leslie Field, an engineer, inventor, and lecturer at Stanford University.

The solution: Cooling the earth with white beach sand

Field is the founder of Ice911 Research, a nonprofit that wants to re-freeze Arctic Sea ice — by spreading a fine layer of reflective glass microbeads across its surface.

“It’s like putting a bright t-shirt on during a sunny day; it keeps you cooler.”

These tiny factory-made glass microbeads look and feel like a very fine, foot-friendly beach sand.  They’re common in a wide array of consumer products: They make up the artificial stones often used in commercial landscaping projects, and medical labs use them to absorb chemical samples. The beads stick to ice and water on contact.

Researchers distribute the glass sand using an automated material spreader (like the tool you’d use for salting an icy sidewalk, or seeding a lawn). The goal is for the resulting layer of glass sand to create a massive artificial reflective blanket that would direct solar radiation back into space, cool the atmosphere, and allow ice to slowly grow back.

“We can delay ice melt by making things brighter,” Field says. “It’s like putting a bright t-shirt on during a sunny day; it keeps you cooler.”

Field and her team started tinkering with the process using small containers of water; in more recent experiments, they are freezing areas the size of small ponds. Last year, they covered 15,000 square meters of ice in all.

Ice911 Research has already done field testing on lake ice in the Sierra Mountains of California, as well as in an experimental observatory in Barrow, Alaska. In February, they are conducting a larger experiment in a giant outdoor seawater pool at the Sea-Ice Environmental Research Facility, affiliated with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg — with the help of a retractable roof to control for snowfall and ice cover, as well as a fleet of sophisticated sensors to allow for real-time monitoring.

The risks

If Arctic refreezing works on the scale that Ice911 Research envisions, the project could have unintended consequences for other areas of the globe. Will a cooler Arctic Ocean result in more floods, snow, or storms in Russia or Europe, for example?

There is also a risk that the glass microspheres that make up the cooling sand could affect wildlife. Initial testing has shown no effect on small fishes and birds, but even more established carbon-cutting innovations have drawbacks — wind turbines have killed both birds and bats, for example. “You don’t want to get tunnel vision that nothing could go wrong, Field says.

The big picture

Field thinks the Ice911 Research project underscores a larger scientific need to understand the dynamics of melting sea ice, and determine if there’s a way to stop it from disappearing altogether. The consequences, after all, are global: melting sea ice is disrupting weather across the world and changing drought, flood, and hurricane cycles all the way down to the tropics. New research suggests the effects are being felt as far away as the equator. As a result, drastic projects, like Ice911 Research’s experiments, are being discussed more seriously.   

“The worst thing we can do is give up and say, it’s too much,” Field says. “We need to go for it, but go for it wisely, safely, and responsibly.”

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Eric Niiler is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration Verónica Grech


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