Can We Reverse Melting Sea Ice? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes
Can we get back the ice that we've lost?? Join us... to find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the cutting edge technologies that could help us to reverse melting sea ice! The disappearing ice caps are one of the most pressing problems in the world today, so what can we do about it? Here, there are at least 3x possible solutions!

Can We Reverse Melting Sea Ice?

Global warming is the most pressing issue of our time, and its effects only grow more extreme year on year. Rising temperatures are causing the polar ice caps to melt, further warming the planet. But there are also plenty of promising potential solutions to the issues at hand.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: can we reverse melting sea ice?

Each year, more and more sea ice melts in the summer, and less refreezes over the winter. According to NASA, we’re losing 13% of sea ice coverage in the Arctic per decade. A process known as the ice-albedo feedback loop means that this will continue increasing. The world’s ice, in the Arctic, Antarctic, and elsewhere, reflects back a significant amount of sunlight. In the past, this was enough to keep the planet cool. But now, thanks to greenhouse gasses produced by human activity, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere, making the planet hotter, which melts sea ice, meaning that less sunlight is reflected away. This in turn warms the planet more, and even more ice melts. The feedback loop is going to continue unless we take drastic action to reduce and ultimately reverse climate change.

There have been some ideas floated in recent years of ways to restore the planet’s sea ice before, or alongside, efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Perhaps the most sci-fi of all was a 2019 proposal put forward by a team of designers from Indonesia. They presented designs for a fleet of submarines that were planned to travel into Arctic waters, where they would freeze huge chunks of ice, restoring the sea ice that we’ve lost over the decades and eventually reversing the feedback loop. These strange, hexagonal, newly formed ice blocks would then, eventually, interlock and create new, artificial ice sheets of their own… which would be able to reflect sunlight once again, and also support sea life like polar bears and penguins.

However, while this might seem like a dream solution, there’s some feeling that the idea has significant flaws. First, it would produce quite thin and shallow ice sheets, rather than the deeper ice required to survive summer months. A second problem is the amount of waste energy in the form of heat that the submarines, themselves, would produce Though the freezing point of pure water is 0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezing point of seawater is lower, around -2 degrees Celsius or 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This is because seawater has so much salt in it. Salt makes it harder for water to freeze because, in a nutshell, the salt molecules “interrupt” the forming of ice crystals. Since seawater freezes at a colder temperature, then, and takes longer to do so, the energy output required would generate so much excess heat from the submarine that you might actually leave the oceans worse off. The waste heat could be greater than the benefit of the new ice. Unfortunately, the designers behind the idea haven’t yet offered up a solution. And, just in case you were wondering, it also wouldn’t be a good idea to switch the saltwater at the center of the process for freshwater. Although it’s easier to freeze fresh or even pure water, it would result in a huge volume of the wrong type of water being in the wrong place. And this could be harmful to all the polar wildlife that’s already adapted to saltwater.

These futuristic submarines aren’t the only high-tech idea we have for restoring the ice sheets. The Arctic Ice Project is a non-profit organization founded in 2008. It has the goal of coating the remaining Arctic ice with reflective “microspheres”. Hollow and made of silica, these tiny grains are small enough to float on water. Crucially, once spread out on the ice, they would be able to reflect enough sunlight to prevent the ice sheet from melting. This would again contribute to ending the feedback loop, reflecting solar energy back out of the atmosphere, enabling the ice to refreeze. In fact, this would create an opposite feedback loop to the one we’re currently grappling with. However, though the Arctic Ice Project has existed for some time, it’s not yet off the ground. It’s had many successful tests conducted over the last decade but hasn’t been able to get widespread support. That’s because as good as the idea sounds, there are plenty of people who have environmental concerns about humans spreading tiny grains of silica in the Arctic, a region that’s already struggling with pollution and wide loss of wildlife habitats. The Ice Project says that these concerns are unfounded and it has been rigorously tested… but it's perhaps easy to see why people are skeptical about whether or not this is the best solution to the problem.

A third tech-based solution to the feedback loop crisis was developed by a team of scientists at Arizona State University who have put forward a proposal involving wind-powered pumps. These pumps would pull seawater up to the surface, enabling it to freeze. The team behind the idea stress that this wouldn’t be a quick fix, though, and should only be considered as just one part of a broader solution to the problem. Nevertheless, it’s still another good and innovative plan. But, unfortunately, it would likely be extremely expensive, and could reportedly cost about $500 billion to implement, with no room for profit or return investment. But it’s worth remembering that no drastic, geoengineering solution to climate change is going to be cheap. And no solution will work properly if we don’t also commit not only to becoming carbon neutral, but carbon negative.

One method for achieving carbon neutrality, and even negativity is CCS, “Carbon Capture and Storage”. Much like ambitious ice-creation plans, CCS is expensive with few financial returns, but it’s also being implemented already. This is proven technology that does work. While it isn’t a direct solution to melting ice specifically, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will lessen the greenhouse effect, meaning that less sea ice will melt overall. It’s yet another vital part of reversing climate change, and it could eventually help break the ice-albedo feedback loop. The method involves catching CO2 from the air as it’s being emitted by power plants, for example, and then essentially burying it underground. The problem is that we don’t have anything to do with this CO2 after we capture it. That makes it hard to get companies causing CO2 emissions to use CCS, as it would eat into their bottom line without offering a return. To combat this, some governments do offer grants and tax credits to companies that use CCS technology to reduce their carbon footprints, but it’s not yet widespread enough to make a huge impact.

Interestingly, nature does have its own ways to capture CO2. The most obvious is through trees, which take CO2 and turn it into oxygen. Planting trees will help to reduce carbon emissions as long as we’re not chopping down more than we’re planting. Nature also has other means of trapping carbon, including through a strange sea creature called a “salp”. Salps are small barrel-shaped organisms that sometimes wash up onshore. They eat algae packed full of CO2 and when they process this food and pass it through their system, it sinks to the bottom of the sea.

Although not likely, at least within our lifetimes, there is the possibility that Earth itself will decide that the melting sea ice needs to be reversed, in the form of a new ice age. Though ice ages have happened frequently throughout Earth’s history, they’re actually quite mysterious. We’re not completely sure about the causes of ice ages in general, but they are related to the Earth’s rotation. Sometimes, Earth’s northern hemisphere tilts just a little too far away from the sun, causing the planet to plunge into a prolonged winter. It’s a certainty that someday this will happen again, but we have no way to predict it. Other natural events could cause plunging temperatures as well, like the eruption of a supervolcano. 1816 was dubbed the “Year Without a Summer” in much of the world because a powerful volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused a global cooling event. It also caused famine, flooding, strange fogs, and disease outbreaks. Might something like that happen again one day? It’s possible.

However, we definitely don’t want to have to wait for a catastrophe or an apocalypse to fix rising sea levels. Such an event could potentially lead to the extinction not only of mankind but of many of the species we’d want to save by rescuing the ice caps. No, waiting for Earth to just bite back probably isn’t the best course of action.

It would be far better to iron out the problems with any of the high-tech solutions first, before waiting for the worst to happen. And, as we move through the twenty-first century, there are options available. Because that’s how we CAN reverse melting sea levels.