Published 10 months ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Image: stein egil liland
Existing approaches to mitigating climate change and Arctic ice melt are proceeding too slowly. Therefore, scientists and innovators are crafting creative, unconventional ways to preserve and restore Arctic ice — here are two wildly different approaches being tested.
The Arctic plays a pivotal role in maintaining climatic stability.
Unfortunately, the icy region is melting at an unprecedented rate; it is
estimated that the Arctic will have ice-free summers by
— a catastrophic ‘blue ocean event’ that would affect all life on earth.
The Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the rest of the planet over
the past 43 years — meaning on average, it is around 3°C warmer than it was in
This faster warming is due to a “positive feedback loop” amplified by the
albedo effect — the ability of a
surface to reflect sunlight. The Arctic has a very high albedo effect due to its
white and snow-covered areas. However, as the planet warms and this Arctic ice
melts, dark seawater is exposed — reducing the surface's ability to reflect
solar warmth, causing more ice to melt, which causes further warming … hence, a
positive feedback loop that is drastically accelerating Arctic warming and
contributing to the overall energy imbalance across the planet.
Conventional methods to mitigate climate change and Arctic ice melt aren’t
progressing fast enough. Therefore, scientists and innovators are ready to
implement creative and unconventional ways to promote the albedo effect and
preserve and restore Arctic ice — here are two wildly different approaches being
Image credit: Real Ice
Real Ice is a startup designing systems that utilize
renewable energy sources — including
— to thicken sea ice, protect the Arctic habitat, and restore the ecosystem.
Born out of Bangor University, Wales, Real Ice was initially inspired by
Steven Desch — a Professor
of Astrophysics in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU — and
his concept of Arctic Ice
Management, which suggested using
renewable energy sources to power machines that could replenish the sea ice.
However, previous approaches lacked scalability — which is essential when
considering the size of the Arctic and how much ice needs to be restored to make
“The scope of our work is to prove out the technology at sufficient scale to
ignite interest with governments, industrial companies and local communities, to
take the idea to the whole of the Arctic at massive scale,” Real Ice founder and
CEO Cian Sherwin told
Sustainable Brands®. “We hope to be a catalyst for the science and
technology to be deployed by many large participants.”
The technology pumps seawater from below the ice onto its surface during the
winter periods. This thickens the ice and consequently increases the albedo
levels so it can last through the summer months to the following winter,
becoming multiyear sea ice.
Real Ice wants to utilize existing technology to reduce the time needed to
implement a renewable-powered solution to Arctic ice melt. There are water pumps
already in use today to generate ice for a variety of recreational and
commercial purposes (such as platforms for oil rigs, ice pathways in Arctic
regions, public ice rinks, etc), although these are diesel-powered. Real Ice’s
innovation involves the combination of existing pumping technology with
advancements made in clean energy. The implementation of renewable energy is
critical for Real Ice to ensure that it is not adding to the carbon problem.
“As we know, current projections predict that it will not be possible to reach
the climate goals set out [to avoid] a global tipping point for widespread
disaster. On a global scale, we would like to contribute to the restoration of
the Arctic Sea ice which has been shown to add to the current estimates for the
lifetime of the Arctic Sea ice. If we can succeed in our project, we would be
contributing more time for humanity to make further progress on the other
essential climate change mitigations,” Sherwin explains.
Real Ice aims to develop and deploy the technology as an answer to excess sea
ice melt in key regions where communities and wildlife have been affected most.
It is committed to including indigenous councils in the development of the
process, so that those who are directly affected by ecosystem degradation derive
as much benefit as possible from the Real Ice initiative.
“We are hoping to demonstrate ice creation using a green hydrogen water pump in
the Arctic later this year. Recent significant progress around the world on
hydrogen production from wave, tidal and wind suggests that devices will be
available to scale energy production to gigawatts within the coming 2-5 years,”
Within the next four years, Real Ice is aiming to generate enough sea ice to
cover one entire bay in the Arctic. After this, it hopes to collaborate and
partner with governments, large industrial partners and local communities to
expand the use of the technology and improve on the deployment approach while
“Our progress will be measured not just by the success of our tests over the
next five years but most importantly by the engagement of local communities,
large enterprises, and governments in our initiative,” Sherwin says.
Image credit: Arctic Ice Project
Meanwhile, the California-based Arctic Ice
Project is exploring another experimental
approach to attempting to save the region — this time, through the use of hollow
glass microspheres that can reflect the sun’s rays, promote the albedo effect
and protect the summer ice below it.
“Human society has been incredibly slow to decarbonize; by the time we
accomplish it, it’ll be well beyond 2050 and all the Arctic ice will have melted
in the summer, which makes this feedback loop so much more difficult to shut
Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors and Scientific Advisory Board Member for
the Arctic Ice Project, told Sustainable Brands. “So, we want to preserve Arctic
Sea ice so that the Arctic Ocean doesn't absorb so much energy during the
Made from silicon dioxide, the hollow glass microspheres are bright white, look
like sand, and they float. Silicon has been used in commercial products for
years, including cosmetics and medicines. Before these silicon microspheres are
applied to the Arctic, Zornetzer says the team is working with a Norwegian
scientific organization called SINTEF to ensure
that the material is safe, non-toxic, and will not affect the food chain or harm
“We’re working to understand the dynamics and ecology of the Arctic, and test
what happens to the material when simulated in high wind and turbulent
conditions: Does the material survive, does it break down, what happens to it
when it breaks down, does it stay on the surface, does it sink, where does it
go?” Zornetzer explains. “Our motto is to do no harm — we certainly don't want
the problem worse than it already is; so we have to demonstrate the safety and
effect of our solution. We’re being very diligent about that.”
Another focus of the project involves deciding when and where these glass
microspheres should be added in the Arctic to have the greatest effect. They
have suggested the Fram Strait — between Greenland and Svalbard in
the Norwegian archipelago; and the Beaufort Gyre, further west. Both
have strategic advantages that could help retain more ice. Critical times to
apply the material involve either late fall, before the winter freeze — so that
the microspheres will be already in the ice — in the spring before the ice melt
occurs, or both.
“We want to identify the optimum time/times during the year where we can apply
this material and locate the most strategic areas within the Arctic which might
amplify the effect — so, even though they represent small percentages of the
total Arctic ocean surface, they have an outsized effect in terms of production
and preservation of ice,” Zornetzer explains.
The Project is engaged with in-depth computational modeling to simulate various
situations surrounding ocean events including wind, ocean currents and
temperatures. The modeling suggests that this methodology can be effective in
restoring Arctic Sea ice; however, there are still a lot of questions to answer.
“If our eco-toxicology demonstrates that the material is safe and we have enough
evidence from our computational modeling and simulation, then we will start
field studies and field testing in the Arctic. We already have collaborators who
are interested in working with us. But that's probably at least 4-5 years away,”
The Arctic Ice Project’s solution falls under the umbrella of geo-engineering,
which is often met with skepticism and has negative connotations. However, if
the ice continues to melt at the current rate, then fear of new technologies
might be the least of our worries.
“We’re getting to a point of desperation and if we don’t use tools like this,
then the problem is going to accelerate to the point where it will be
uncontrollable,” Zornetzer exclaims. “If we don't get ahead of this problem in
time, it'll probably be the existential problem for our species and life on
earth as we know it.”
Published Jan 26, 2023 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Scarlett Buckley is a London-based freelance sustainability writer with an MSc in Creative Arts & Mental Health.