Arctic Ice Project is a climate intervention non-profit. We believe our solution is simple, effective, and compelling. But when phrases like Surface Albedo Modification and Hollow Glass Microspheres are central to our mission, it might take a little unpacking.
What is the Arctic Ice Project?
We’re a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching safe ways to protect the Earth’s natural heat shield and help stabilize the global climate.
Our team is starting with Arctic ice as it’s a very important lever on climate change. Loss of reflective ice in the Arctic over the past few decades contributes greatly to the current global temperature rise.
We’ve spent the past decade testing and developing material approaches that could be used to make young, thin ice reflective. Our team now focuses on organizing a top-tier network of prominent scientific organizations to test and prepare the reflective hollow glass microspheres we have developed for deployment.
Why Arctic ice?
The Arctic plays a critical role in maintaining a safe and stable global climate. For the past 700,000 years, the Arctic sea has acted like the Earth’s heat shield by reflecting incoming solar radiation safely back to space, keeping us at an even temperature.
What is happening in the Arctic?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 Arctic report card communicates that the region is experiencing unprecedented changes as a result of warming air temperatures and ocean waters, and declining sea ice. These changes in the Arctic environment are affecting ecosystems and communities on a global scale.
Why do you call this a climate crisis?
Scientists worldwide report that continued warming of the Arctic’s atmosphere and ocean are driving broad changes in the Earth’s environmental system. The changes that are happening in the Arctic don’t just affect the Arctic. Our planet has already experienced several devastating effects as global average temperatures have risen by >0.8°C due to human causes, including droughts, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise. We must act now to ensure a livable future for humanity.
Why is "multiyear" ice important?
The most reflective type of ice in the Arctic—multiyear ice that survives Arctic summers—has melted with shocking speed as the region warms faster than the rest of the planet. Lost reflective ice has already contributed to one-third of the global rise in temperature. Our solution would help young, thin ice act more like multiyear, reflective ice.
Why is your solution important?
Sea ice minimums are reaching a point where scientific climate models project an ice-free Arctic as early as 2030. With your help, we have the potential to stop this destructive trend, save multiyear ice, and help turn new winter ice into multiyear ice. If we can bring back more reflective multiyear ice, there’s a chance that this can restore the Arctic’s ice cap and its ability to protect the Earth from extreme heat.
Process and Efficacy
What is Surface Albedo Modification?
By applying reflective materials such as glass microspheres on young, low-reflectivity sea ice, we can protect the young ice from the summer sun, much like a white shirt fends off the sun for a person on a hot summer day. This way the ice may be conserved and converted over time into highly reflective multiyear sea ice. Climate modeling shows that this method can cool the Arctic significantly and can rebuild Arctic ice area and volume, hence reducing Arctic as well as global temperature rise.
What if Snow Falls on the Material?
Where are you getting this glass from?
We currently get the small quantities needed for testing from commercial suppliers of these materials who are typically producing it without any recycled glass content. We are investigating alternative sources and formulations for larger orders.
Will you use recycled glass?
We are investigating many possibilities for glass sources for the material including recycled glass. In principle, there is reason to believe that recycled glass could work very well.
What will it cost to deploy your solution?
Deployment could cost around $1-5 billion a year.
Isn’t that a lot?
We believe we need to stop climate change no matter the cost, yet our solution is surprisingly cost effective. Stopping climate change could end up costing nearly $50 Trillion in the next 20 years. That means our solution would end up accounting for less than .1% of the cumulative cost of fighting climate change. Proportionally, deployment would cost less than what the average American spends each year on ice cream. Compared to other options it’s safe, effective, and practical, and the most cost effective. Our interim solution can be applied to buy time for the world’s nations to complete the move to a more sustainable economy.
Will this give people a false sense of security so that they will continue to burn fossil fuels and not cut down on their carbon footprints?
This is something we’ve struggled with internally for some time. We don’t want to be the excuse not to do the rest of the important work on decarbonization that must happen. But reality is on our side with this one. Climate modeling shows that we can be very effective, but not nearly effective enough to act alone. In the best case we can give the world some extra decades before some of the worst climate impacts in order to do the work of decarbonizing in a way that is economically and politically palatable. We see the project we’re working on as a tool in the tool chest, and just like you wouldn’t fix a car with a single wrench we won’t fix the climate by ourselves.
What is climate modeling?
Climate models executed through research partnerships with experts in modeling and Arctic albedo help us translate the small-scale laboratory and field test results into what the potential climate impacts could be for implementing this climate restoration solution in strategic areas of the Arctic. Climate modeling lets us work through complicated problems in advance through simulations, helping us understand the Arctic’s complex system interactions. The models also allow us to test climate theories and solutions so we can best predict how the Arctic region’s environment will change over time. Importantly, the modeling allows us to evaluate impacts local to any proposed treatment area, as well as to predict any farther-reaching effects.
It has been observed that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, and that, for instance, the recent shifts in Arctic conditions have led to increased droughts and fire risks in the Western US. Conversely, climate modeling allows us to predict how much of such droughts and fire risks in the Western US could be mitigated by rebuilding Arctic reflectivity, to the world’s benefit. The climate modeling also lets us predict any adverse impacts that might have increased the likelihood of occurring in some region of the world, so that policymakers and international bodies like the UN that consider the good of the entire world, can assess which scenarios show clearly that the benefits to the world would outweigh any predicted risks – and which scenarios should be avoided.
Our approach takes a deliberately light touch, treating the smallest possible areas, with the smallest possible amounts of material, for the maximum benefit at the lowest cost and risk, and to live by our most important principle of first do no harm.
Safety and Environment
Are the hollow glass microspheres safe for wildlife?
Yes, but more studies are needed.
Ecotoxicological safety is our highest priority. So far we have completed testing with ingestion on one fish and one bird species showing no deleterious effects, as published here: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018EF000820. The interaction of hollow glass microsphere material is still an area of active research for us, and we are looking at interactions with arctic algae in our current research at SINTEF in Trondheim, Norway. Following our work to understand the effect of biofouling and fate in the ecosystem, we are looking at further tests looking at possible key species in any areas that may be affected: at the water surface, through the water column, and in sediments.
What if animals ingest it?
Humans, animals, birds, and fish alike ingest silica regularly. Birds look for and select larger grains of silica to aid digestion in their stomachs and fish swim through it at about one part per million of ocean water. Most importantly, because we’ve all co-evolved with silica, it does not bioaccumulate (i.e. it doesn’t become concentrated inside the bodies of living things).
Are there any possible health effects in humans?
We are aware of the dangers of silicosis, caused by inhalation of large amounts of crystalline silica dust. The hollow glass microspheres we use are not made of crystalline silica, but completely amorphous material, and so do not contribute to silicosis. As well we are choosing the particle size of the microspheres to be above 10 microns in diameter to remove the ability of the body to absorb them. The effect of weathering on the microspheres is still an active area of research, and we are investigating the fate in the ecosystem (e.g. would these smooth glass particles shatter into smaller, sharp particles that can pose a hazard) and if so, how to design the microspheres to avoid this degradation mode.
What do you mean when you say your solution is reversible?
When we say reversible what we mean is that the solution will not persist in the Arctic permanently. Not even very long. Over the course of 6-12 months, after it’s deployed, we anticipate that it will disperse and break down in the harsh marine environment reigning the millions of tons of silica on the ocean floor and dissolved in the water column.
Outreach and policy
Is your solution geo-engineering?
While some may place our efforts in that category it’s a term that to many, for better or worse, has come to mean stratospheric sulfate aerosol injection, which we are not. While we respect the efforts of everyone working to fight climate change, we’ve been working hard to establish our climate restoration project as an effort to disperse safe materials in very limited, strategic locations (a little goes a long way), and our solution is reversible if needed, which stands in contrast to other approaches.
What has your outreach process to Indigenous communities looked like?
We have been in early testing and are in the process of developing a timeline for communication and community involvement.
So far, we’ve been deeply in the process of development to ensure we have a climate solution that’s even viable to discuss. Now that we’re more confident in the efficacy of our solution, involving the tribes and residents of the Arctic is necessary and critical before any field testing (let alone implementation). Before we move towards field testing in the Arctic, we intend to present our work to the organizations and individuals who live and work near any future testing and deployment sites. We are in the process of developing a timeline/plan for communication and community involvement as we in no way want to repeat history. We hope to have a more detailed answer for you soon. That said, we do not intend to spread this material ourselves. Deployment is a decision too big for any one organization to make, rather we intend to leave the process up to local governments. Even under the shortest timeline potential deployment would still be five years out.
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