The Arctic is in Crisis

Steve Zornetzer, PhD and AIP Board Member 

I am going to start out this report with something that scientists normally don’t do and that is to share some feelings with you. I’m scared, I’m anxious, I’m frustrated and I’m angry. Political leaders and humankind in general have not taken climate change and global warming issues more seriously than they have in the past.  We are losing ground on global warming. It is advancing much faster than we had hoped. We have not abided by the Paris Accords or any of the commitments we have made as governments around the world to begin weaning ourselves from a carbon economy and from fossil fuels and therefore climate change continues to advance. We have only a short window of time to act.  

Our planet’s climate is changing due to human-caused disruption of the balance between solar radiation absorption (heat gain) and heat loss into space. Atmospheric absorption of surface thermal radiation has been increasing due to huge emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases by humankind into the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. These gases, commonly called “greenhouse gases” (GHG), trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise be reflected back into space. The net effect is a reduction in planetary heat loss while solar radiation heat gain continues, thus warming the planet. In its simplest form, this imbalance is the root cause of global warming (GW).

So, the question is, how do we, as the species that caused this unintended GW problem, solve the problem? Before addressing this question directly, as we will below, it is important to understand the consequences of doing nothing. The adverse impacts of GW and associated climate change are undeniably dangerous: intensified destructive storms, droughts, wildfires, sea level rise, and an intense decrease in biodiversity caused by habitat degradation. Together, these consequences threaten the material safety and food security of a growing human population. Doing nothing to slow and potentially reverse GW is not an option. Human and economic suffering will be catastrophic. Cost estimates for climate change-related disasters and associated infrastructure, agricultural, economic and human health impacts by 2040 are staggering. In just the next two decades, these costs are estimated to be $54 trillion world-wide. Today it is estimated that the Arctic is warming more than three times faster than the rest of the planet. This is the Arctic crisis.

At the Arctic Ice Project (AIP), we believe that regional surface albedo modification (SAM), will strategically increase the reflectivity of Arctic sea ice to preserve and extend its persistence. SAM, if proven safe and effective, could be deployed with few or no unintended consequences. The more ice that persists during Arctic summer months, the more solar reflectivity and the less planetary heating. In recent decades, Arctic sea and land ice have been melting at frighteningly fast rates. This ice loss is reducing the planet’s reflectivity and simultaneously increasing heat gain through greater absorption of solar energy by dark Arctic Ocean waters during summer when the sun shines 24 hours/day. This accelerating loss of sea ice is contributing to the alarmingly rapid warming of the Arctic. Not many years ago, Arctic warming and sea ice loss was thought to be a consequence of GW. Today, scientists now know that Arctic warming has become so great that it is now a contributor to GW. Some scientists estimate as much as 25% of all GW would be contributed by complete loss of summer Arctic sea ice. Loss of Arctic sea ice engages two feedback mechanisms that promote accelerated warming. First, loss of summer sea ice reduces the reflectivity of the surface allowing more solar energy to be absorbed by the ocean, leading to more heating which in turn leads to further sea ice loss. Second, sea ice provides a thermal barrier protecting the cold Arctic air from the relatively warmer ocean below, effectively insulating the colder air from the warmer ocean water. Loss of sea ice removes this insulation and the ocean warms the air which in turn melts more ice. These two positive feedback loops contribute to “Arctic Amplification”, i.e., accelerated warming. 

The objective of sea ice SAM is to break these feedback loops, restore sea ice, mitigate warming over a large Arctic region, and slow GW. AIP’s innovation is to increase the reflectivity of young ice by applying a very thin layer of reflective hollow silica glass microspheres onto the surface of the ice. This could increase the reflectivity of ice by about 50 percent, reducing the absorption of solar radiation. The material used in this treatment is nontoxic, consisting mostly of silica (the primary material in sand, and most rocks). Bio-toxicological testing to date has shown no adverse impact on wildlife. AIP believes, in agreement with a recent National Academy of Science report, that a major research and development effort is urgently needed to fully understand the safety, effectiveness, cost and potential unintended consequences of currently proposed climate intervention approaches. We need every effective and safe tool in the toolbox to be ready for use. The clock is ticking and the Arctic crisis contributes significantly to the GW crisis, looming larger and larger each year we do nothing. We must act! Doing nothing is not an option! We appreciate your support and encouragement as we make progress towards providing an effective mitigation to GW.


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