​It’ll cost R6.5-trillion to save the Arctic, but it’ll be worth it

The world’s climate is changing at such a dramatic rate that the solutions have to be equally monumental to keep up. Where politicians fail to ensure carbon emissions are lowered, scientists have to get imaginative.

Take the Arctic, for example.

Its thin film of ice is essential for the world to regulate its temperature. The white snow and ice reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the world cooler. Water and air currents flowing through the region cool down, helping to balance out similar currents coming from the hot tropics.

When that doesn’t work, things start to go awry. Subzero temperatures across the United States over Christmas were the result of the polar vortex (a freezing band of air that circles the North Pole) veering off course, because the Arctic was 20°C warmer than usual. Rainfall in the Sahara has also been linked to this anomaly.

If carbon emissions are not rapidly reduced, and the Arctic keeps warming, these anomalies will become more frequent.

The world, as a whole, will become warmer and permafrost in the Arctic will start to melt, releasing methane. The 1 000-billion tonnes of this potent greenhouse gas, if released, would be double all of human emissions since the Industrial Revolution. That will lead to rapid global warming as the particles trap more heat in the atmosphere.

But carbon emissions are not being rapidly reduced. So scientists are starting to think big when it comes to mechanical solutions.

Last week, a team from Arizona State University published their proposal in the journal Earth’s Future. Noting that the Arctic will be mostly ice-free by 2030, they said that “restoring sea ice artificially is an imperative”.

Their solution? Building 10-million wind-powered pumps on top of the existing Arctic sea ice. At a total cost of R6.5-trillion, these pumps will suck water from below the ice sheet and pour it over the sheet. The subzero conditions will then freeze the water and add a metre of ice across the ice sheet.

The team concluded that this would “more than reverse the current trends of ice loss on the Arctic”.

For now, the Arizona research is just that. Nobody has indicated that there is an appetite to turn it into reality. But in a world of increasingly damaging climate change, prohibitively expensive solutions might just start to make sense. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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