Slowing Arctic ice melt is an all-hands-on-deck mission. By partnering with top organizations and scientists around the world to restore the Arctic, we are increasing the know-how, credibility, and human-power behind our solution ten fold.
How can glass beads slow Arctic ice melt?
The most promising solution to date, currently at Technology Readiness Level 3 (of 8), is a novel materials approach that proposes to deploy a thin layer of very small hollow glass microspheres across strategically chosen small regions of the Arctic to improve the reflectivity of sea ice, mimicking natural processes to reflect solar energy out of our atmosphere and restore the Arctic.
SINTEF researchers investigating potential hollow glass microspheres and their flotation properties.
What are Hollow Glass Microspheres?
The material we are evaluating is made from an amorphous glass primarily composed of silicon dioxide (“silica”). Silica is an inert compound made of two of the earth’s most abundant materials: silicon and oxygen. The mass of Earth’s crust is 59% silica, the main constituent of more than 95% of the known rocks, and is the major constituent of sand. Ocean water already contains a large amount of silica.
We chose this type of material after considerable research and testing using laboratory and small-scale tests to determine what characteristics gave best results and were safe, practical and stable to deploy. The resulting solution, strategically applied in the Arctic, could provide up to a decade more time for the world’s economies to decarbonize and draw down GHGs from the atmosphere.
The material is made from a glass which is mostly silicon dioxide (“silica”). Silica is a compound made of two of the earth’s most abundant materials: silicon and oxygen. The mass of Earth’s crust is 59% silica, the main constituent of more than 95% of the known rocks, and is the major constituent of sand.
Is it safe?
The first tenet of Arctic Ice Project’s mission statement is “First, do no harm.” It is of utmost importance in developing methods for climate change mitigation to ensure that no harm is done to the environment, nor the tribes, communities, and animals that call the Arctic home in the attempts to restore ice. To that end Arctic Ice Project is undertaking detailed studies on the ecotoxicological effects of their technologies, through modeling, and environmental fate studies, and ecotoxicological research.
Mitigating Risks to the Ecosystem
In addition to developing the most effective reflective materials, we are exploring ways to deploy our solutions. Our current work with the Harvey Mudd College Clinic program looks at the aerodynamics of hollow glass microspheres and air dispersal from large ships.
We are currently executing a multi-year, multi-million dollar collaboration with SINTEF, one of the largest independent research organizations in Europe. SINTEF has over 2000 researchers centered in Trondheim, Norway. Our full joint work plan covers materials testing, safety, performance testing and methods for deployment. The initial phase, which began last fall, starts with lab testing on how our material performs in SINTEF’s simulated Arctic Ocean environment. These detailed studies then become the basis for experimentation in the field. We still need to secure permits, permissions and additional funding to complete the full set of projects.
Last year we conducted climate modeling on the Fram Strait. This year, with funding from the Open Road Foundation, we have been working with Climformatics to conduct more extensive modeling of the impacts of our solution deployed in two areas of the Beaufort Gyre, the “birthplace of Arctic Ice.” AIP has received extensive support from the NASA Earth Exchange in supercomputer time. We plan to publish a paper on our findings next year.
Harvey Mudd College Clinic Team
The Arctic Ice Project Clinic Team at Harvey Mudd College developed a simulation of the dispersion of hollow glass microspheres (HGMs) from shipboard over Arctic sea ice. Taking into account force from a blower fan, wind, drag, and gravity, the simulation found that airborne distribution of microspheres could disperse to a distance of a few kilometers from the ship. By focusing on areas of the Arctic where spring melt leads to significant movement of sea ice, the impact of airborne distribution could be multiplied. The dispersion area could increase based on ship speed and ice speed.
Other approaches to dispersal under consideration include dispersing the materials on young “grease ice” to nucleate, grow, and increase albedo, and using Arctic ocean currents to spread the material in the selected strategic area. Many thanks to Harvey Mudd College for their generous and ongoing collaboration.
Courtesy of Climformatics
Additional Areas of Focus
The National Academy of Sciences draws a distinction between geoengineering and “climate intervention” we feel is valuable. They define geoengineering as a broad range of activities beyond and including climate that implies a greater level of precision and control than might be possible. Climate intervention, on the other hand, is applied to an action intended to improve the climate situation.1 We agree with this distinction and use the latter to describe our work, rather than applying the label of “geoengineering”.
Surface albedo modification (SAM) is a form of surface radiation management that seeks to counteract the absorption of thermal radiation by the planet’s surface with increased surface reflection of that energy back into space. The objective of SAM is to make small, controlled and localized changes to the environment and take advantage of climate feedback loops to minimize the disruptions.
It is apparent that most climate intervention approaches suggested as solutions to the global climate challenge are potentially risky. Thorough research is necessary in order to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of these technologies. Hollow glass microspheres may be able to temporarily and reversibly increase sunlight reflected in limited, specific Arctic areas with significant global benefits and minimal risk.
Scientific Advisory Board
We created our Scientific Advisory Board in order to assure that the Arctic Ice Project is taking the correct precautions and measures in our research. The board includes several prominent Arctic scientists, and has endorsed the need for prudent research into these technologies as a science-based climate solution. The impacts of climate change are quickly mounting and will continue to accelerate due to feedback effects. Our team and Scientific Advisory Board hope we are able to solve climate change with decarbonization alone, but we need to prepare for the worst. The world is looking at the very real possibility of a future where our intervention could be crucial to protecting the planet as we know it.
Policy and Governance
Arctic ice restoration depends not only on technological breakthroughs but on the collaboration with and consent of Indigenous Arctic communities, nations and multinational organizations to implement ice restoration solutions. We recognize that in the name of science, great harms have been done to Indigenous communities across the world and we are working towards an inclusive and light-touch approach to ensure our work is done responsibly. In parallel with our evaluation and development of engineering solutions to Arctic ice melt, we are developing a global network of climate restoration leaders to collaboratively chart the pathway for adopting climate restoration technologies. We will invest in policy research to develop a blueprint for adoption of our technologies so that the multinational framework for adoption is ready when the technology is ready for deployment, as deployment of a solution such as ours is too important of a decision for a single non-profit to make.