APR 30, 2018 9:52 AM PDT

Could sand save the Arctic?

North Meadow Lake sits on the northern tip of Alaska, near Utqiaġvik, which used to be called Barrow. Not many people have been this far north, and only those who have (many of them scientists), have seen the effects of climate change on the Arctic’s sea ice.

It is estimated that sea ice is being lost at a rate not seen in over 1,500 years, Following the Guardian and calculations from NASA, sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing by about 13% a decade. Scientists anticipate that Arctic sea ice could be gone during the summer season by 2040.

Sea ice is threatened by a low albedo. Photo: Carbon Brief

Which is why an organization called Ice911 has swung into action, with a plan to spread reflective sand on frozen North Meadow Lake in order to see if it will make a difference in the rapidness of melting occurring in the region. The lake is just the testing grounds – if the sand proves to do its job, Ice911 wants to cover 19,000 square miles of sea ice with sand in an effort to stave off a low albedo effect.

(Albedo refers to the proportion of the incident light or radiation that is reflected by a surface; in other words, ice and snow reflect more light (and therefore heat) and have a high albedo, while water absorbs more and has a low albedo. The albedo effect creates a positive feedback cycle with climate change, as more heat is absorbed with more and more melting ice, thus making waters water and melting ice faster.)

"Sea ice in the Arctic isn’t going to come back by itself,” said Leslie Field, founder of Ice911. “And we don’t have much time left.” As a Silicon Valley engineer, Field has been looking for a material that could protect sea ice for roughly 10 years. Her idea is that little sand bits of silica could give the ice the reflective boost it needs to “fight back” climate change, reflecting up to 90% of the sun’s light and heat.

“This ‘emergency first aid’ is framed as a chance for the world to be afforded more time to slash greenhouse gas emissions,” writes the Guardian.

But, assuming the test experiment’s success, how would we go about covering such a huge space with this silica sand? Field suggests ship-based deployment, but the cost and resources needed for a project with such scale are daunting: estimates reach up to $750 million for deployment of the sand – which doesn’t even include the cost of labor.

Then again, as Field points out, the alternatives of doing nothing will undoubtedly cost us even more. “It’s not chump change, but compared to other options it’s cost effective,” she said. “It’s a matter of trying to prevent the horrific list of things, such as sea level rise, storms and so on, that will come from climate change. Things that will cost us trillions, not billions.”

Sources: The Guardian, Ice911

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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