Geoengineer the arctic to get thicker ice with wind turbines


There are a couple different ways to come at the problem of climate change—you can focus on eliminating the cause, or on mitigating the symptoms. The latter approach includes obvious things like preventing flooding from rising sea levels. But it also ranges into “geoengineering” schemes as radical as injecting sunlight-reflecting aerosol droplets into the stratosphere. Such schemes are band-aids rather than cures, but band-aids have their uses.

One worrying change driven by the climate is the loss of Arctic sea ice. The late-summer Arctic Ocean is on track to become ice-free around the 2030s. The rapid warming of the Arctic has serious implications for local ecosystems, but it also influences climate elsewhere in ways we’re still working to fully understand. One frequently mentioned effect is the increased absorption of sunlight in the Arctic as reflective snow and ice disappears—a positive feedback that amplifies warming.

What if we could slap a sea ice band-aid on the Arctic? In a recent paper, a group of Arizona State researchers led by astrophysicist Steven Desch sketch out one hypothetical band-aid—a geoengineering scheme to freeze more ice during the Arctic winter.

The idea is simple enough: wind turbines on the sea ice could pump water from below onto the surface, where it quickly freezes, thickening the ice in winter. In the right places, that could mean the difference between sea ice disappearing or surviving through the end of summer. But like any back-of-a-napkin solution to the world’s problems, reality is substantially more challenging than it might initially appear.

A good chunk of the paper is dedicated to the physics of freezing seawater. While the Arctic Ocean is actually slightly colder than a bucket of ice water, the saltiness of seawater lowers the freezing point to about -1.8°C. Because the air above the Arctic Ocean can be much, much colder than that, ice seasonally forms at the ocean’s surface.

Existing sea ice forms a barrier between the seawater and the frigid air, and any new ice forms on the bottom of that ice sheet. So thickening is inhibited by the need to transfer the heat released during freezing from the bottom of the ice to the atmosphere. Though the wind turbine scheme brings water up to freeze on top of the ice, the thickening at the bottom is still a significant factor. The researchers calculate that pumping enough water to add a meter of ice would actually only result in a net thickening of 0.7 meters because the “natural” addition of ice to the underside would be reduced.

That aside, could a scheme like this actually halt the loss of sea ice? The annual average thickness of sea ice in the Arctic, which is now about 1.4 meters, is decreasing by almost 0.6 meters per decade. The researchers focus on a scenario where their turbines cover 10 percent of the Arctic ice, thickening it by a meter over each winter. Because the additions can carry over somewhat from year to year if you choose your locations well, this would actually be more than enough to counter the downward trend.

Geoengineering doesn’t come cheap, and this is no exception. As the researchers put it, “[I]t is reasonable to ask whether such an endeavor is financially feasible or even logistically possible.” Covering “just” 10 percent of the Arctic would require a staggering 10 million wind turbine pumps like those currently used on farmland. Mounting 12-meter-tall turbines on steel buoys brings you to about 10 tons of steel each.

Throw in the cost of shipping these things off to their Arctic homes, and setting up the turbines over 10 years would cost about $50 billion per year. That’s certainly no pittance, but it’s also far less than the US paid for the Iraq War, for example. Of course there are also maintenance costs—it’s unclear how easy it would be to ensure the turbines don’t simply become encased in the ice they’re trying to make. The authors don’t calculate this expense

There are, obviously, many blanks to be filled in before a proposal like this could be properly evaluated. Maintenance costs—and how best to prevent the turbines from becoming encased in ice and rime—are just one unknown. Would turbines need to be periodically relocated as they drifted with the sea ice? And the ice itself might be different. Since seawater is frozen on top of the ice, the brine formed from the salt excluded by the freezing process would burrow downward, changing the physical properties of the ice in a way that might have consequences.

Stabilizing sea ice in some areas could have clear benefits for the species that rely on it, including polar bears. The climate benefits could be significant, too, holding off the amplifying feedback of absorbing more sunlight. That avoided warming could partly prevent the release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost or possible changes in weather patterns driven by sea ice loss.

The cost-benefit calculation is exceedingly complex because the Earth’s climate system is complex. Along with the incredible scale, that is what makes geoengineering a daunting proposition. Then again, the future without it is looking daunting as well.

Open Access at Earth’s Future, 2016. DOI: 10.1002/2016EF000410 (About DOIs).

The Climate Accountability Scorecard

Ranking Major Fossil Fuel Companies on Climate Deception, Disclosure, and Action (2016)

An in-depth analysis of eight leading fossil fuel companies finds that none of them has made a clean break from disinformation on climate science and policy.

Major fossil fuel producers bear a particular responsibility for climate change.

Their products cause a buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Many of these companies have worked to systematically block laws or regulations that would reduce heat-trapping emissions, in some cases by spreading disinformation about climate science.

And they are continuing to encourage, plan for, and invest in expanded and unabated fossil fuel use—despite fully understanding the adverse climate impacts of their products.

It’s time for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable for their climate actions.

Climate impacts are intensifying around the world and fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for their climate actions. Companies should immediately stop funding climate deception and publicly acknowledge the long-term goal of the Paris Climate Agreement and its implications for a swift transition to global net-zero emissions.
Left: Peter Mahon/West 12th Road Block Association; center: U.S. Forest Service/Mike McMillan; right: Rogers

In-depth analysis

This comprehensive study includes eight leading fossil fuel companies and is based on extensive research into the companies’ climate-related communications, positions, and actions, focusing on the period from January 2015 through May 2016.

Company Profiles and Scorecard Results

Results for ArchCoal and Peabody Energy can be found in the full report.

The analysis provides a detailed look at four main areas where these companies must take immediate action to prevent the worst effects of global climate change. Each of these areas includes multiple metrics that contribute to a company’s overall score for that area; the full analysis features a total of 30 metrics.

The scorecard is intended to help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future by equipping the media, investors, policy makers, and consumers—you!—with tools to assess companies’ current performance and urge specific, immediate action.

The methodology and supporting appendices for the analysis are available below.

Failing to renounce disinformation on climate science and policy

All eight companies maintain membership—and in many cases have leadership positions—in trade associations and other industry groups that spread disinformation about climate science and/or seek to block climate action.

All companies except BP and Shell scored low on the metric for “accuracy and consistency of public statements on climate science and the consequent need for swift and deep reductions in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Failing to plan for the world’s commitments to fight climate change

Among the companies in our study, only BP and Shell have publicly expressed support for the international climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015 and its global temperature goals.

None of the eight companies has laid out a company-wide pathway or plan to align its business model with the Paris Climate Agreement.


History was made with the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, when countries worldwide committed to an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions in order to curb climate change. However, major fossil fuel companies currently have business plans that would result in emissions far greater than the limits set in Paris. It’s time for these companies to align their business models with the global temperature goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

A small bright spot: 2 out of 8 companies supportive of fair and effective climate policies

BP and ConocoPhillips received a score of “good” in this area, primarily due to the companies’ disclosure, policies, and oversight related to political spending. All companies should do more to publicly support and advocate for climate policies.

During the study period some of the companies made general statements about the need to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases but fell short of expressing support for specific US policies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan or the EPA methane rule.

Poor to barely adequate disclosure of climate risks to investors

Only ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil have acknowledged climate change as a contributor to the physical risks faced by their businesses.

All of the companies studied can and should do better to fulfill existing climate risk disclosure requirements, and they should begin to prepare for enhanced disclosure regimes in the future.

What we should expect from fossil fuel companies

The Union of Concerned Scientists has developed a set of standards for fossil fuel producers that choose to chart a new course and act responsibly on climate change.

To meet these standards and retain the public trust and social legitimacy necessary to do business, a fossil fuel producer must accept its role in contributing to the problem and must contribute to solutions, by taking action in five broad areas:

  • Renounce disinformation. Stop all corporate support for disinformation on climate science and policy, including affiliation with or funding of organizations involved in spreading disinformation.
  • Plan for a world free from carbon pollution. Align the company’s business model with a carbon-constrained world consistent with the goal of keeping warming well below a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels, as agreed by world leaders.
  • Support fair and effective climate policies. Consistently and actively advocate fair and effective policies to reduce heat-trapping emissions at the subnational, national, and international levels.
  • Fully disclose climate risks. Fully disclose financial and physical risks of climate change to the company’s business, including its infrastructure and reserve assets.
  • Pay their share of climate costs. Agree to pay the company’s share of the costs of climate-related damages and climate change adaptation. This report does not assess company performance in this area, as no fossil fuel company has even begun to pay its share of the costs of climate damages and adaptation.

‘Luxury iceberg water’ for £80 a bottle? It’s ignorant, insensitive and irresponsible

e’ve reached peak bottled water. From today, for a sweet £80, Harrods will sell ‘luxury water’ harvested from icebergs off the coast of Svalbard. Svalbarði is the brainchild of Jamal Qureshi, a Norwegian-American Wall Street businessman who visited the archipelago in 2013, and returned with melted iceberg water as a gift for his wife. He then, it seems, decided to bring this water to more people.

Astonishingly, the governor of Svalbard has approved Qureshi’s venture. He charters an icebreaker to make two expeditions a year, in the summer and the autumn when icebergs calve away from glaciers that run into the sea. One-tonne pieces of ice are carved from these floating bergs at a time. Using a crane and a net, they are lifted onto the boat and taken to Longyearbyen to be melted down into bottles of “polar iceberg water” which has has “the taste of snow in air”. On each expedition, Qureshi plans to harvest 15 tonnes of ice to produce 13,000 bottles.

The environmental sustainability of the venture is the first concern of many people, Qureshi told the Guardian. “But we’re carbon neutral certified, and we’re supporting renewable energy projects in East Africa and China,” he said. “We also only take icebergs that are already floating in the water and would usually melt in a few weeks, and that can’t be used for hunting [by polar bears].”

Some may argue that if you can afford to drink melted ice caps, who should stop you? Your money, your choice. Depleting 30 tonnes of iceberg a year is, arguably, not that much in the grand scheme of things. But Qureshi’s venture is not the first of its kind. Tibet has already approved licences for dozens of companies to tap Himalayan glaciers for ‘premium’ bottled drinking water. Ten major rivers that flow into South Asia depend on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Disrupting their source could have devastating impacts for water security across the region.

And this is not the only problem. First, sea ice is already melting. The extent of Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest record last year and scientists have warned this could have devastating impacts across the rest of the world, such as shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean and change climate patterns as far as Asia, as well as the collapse of key Arctic fisheries, which could impact other ocean ecosystems. Icebergs don’t need yet more human interference – no matter how small the scale – to speed up the melting process. The bottled water industry is already giving us enough of a headache. It is estimated that 3l of water are need to produce just one 1l plastic bottle of water, which is more likely to be discarded and end up in landfill than recycled. Beside the fact that our planet is slowly silting up with plastic, it also takes huge amounts of fossil fuels to make water bottles – plastic or glass – and transport them around the world. In the US, for example, 1.5 million barrels of oil are needed per year to meet the demand of the country’s water bottle manufacturing.

But surely the most problematic aspect of this product is the sheer insensitivity of exploiting one of the world’s last wildernesses, and charging such a high price for its product? This, while 663 million people currently live without safe water. Consider the extremes: one person pays £80 to drink water, never before touched by humans and preserved by micron filters and UV light, while another – one of 159 million – depends on surface water, vulnerable to contamination by faeces, parasites, pesticides and more. The emergence of luxury water is just another ugly indicator of our world’s many inequalities.

For so many of the things we buy, there is a flashier, pricier, more luxurious alternative for those who can afford it. Why travel in economy if you could travel first class? Why buy from the high-street when you could buy designer clothing ? Water, it seems, is just the next in a list to receive this divisive treatment; why, if you live somewhere it is clean and safe, drink water from a tap when you could drink bottled water from “pristine peaks”, “artesian aquifers” and now “from the top of the world”?The wheels are in motion. Precedents have been set. Will more wealthy entrepreneurs now eye up other precious natural resources to create yet another “must-have” item?We already live beyond our means. Our lifestyle choices see us using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we consume, and absorb what we throw away. At such a time, Svalbarði seems insensitive, ignorant and irresponsible. It’s time to live sustainably and consume responsibly, not promote mindless habits just because some people can afford it.For some time, water has been thought of as a commodity, and even the former UN special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation believes it doesn’t have to be free. But something so precious, so essential to all life – human, animal and mineral – should never be marketed as a luxury.

article by Katherine Purvis

More heat on the way as North Pole temps spike by 30 Celsius

Things are heating up in the Arctic, yet again, this week, as one storm has already caused temperatures near the North Pole to spike by nearly 30C on Wednesday, and even more heat is on the way in the days to come as they will be approaching the freezing mark.

That may not seem like anything remarkable, but right now, in early February, in the deep darkness of the Arctic winter, 0C is roughly 30C above normal for what thermometers should be reading for that part of the world.