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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Could These Experimental Innovations Help Save Arctic Sea Ice?

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 2050 — 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 1980. 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 tested.

Real Ice

Image credit: Real Ice

Real Ice is a startup designing systems that utilize renewable energy sources — including wind and tide — 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 a difference.

“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,” Sherwin says.

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 scaling.

“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.

Arctic Ice Project

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 down,” Steven Zornetzer, Ph.D., 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 summer.”

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 any organisms.

“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,” Zornetzer says.

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.”