Could millions of wind-powered pumps slow sea ice retreat in Arctic?

Frozen and snow-covered meltwater ponds on Arctic sea ice. A recent study used climate modelling to explore whether millions of wind-powered pumps could effect Arctic sea-ice formation. (Stefan Hendricks/AWI)
The idea of using millions of of wind-power pumps throughout the Arctic to facilitate sea-ice formation was first floated by U.S. researchers as  potential ‘Arctic ice management’ in the journal Earth’s Future in 2017. But now a study from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) has found that the project, technically at least, could really be a “go.”

“Given the unchecked progression of climate change to date, geo-engineering can’t be dismissed as mere nonsense by the climate research community,” said Helge Goessling, head of the research group.

To test the theory, AWI researchers Goessling and Lorenzo Zampieri  used climate modelling and published their findings in Earth’s Future  “Sea ice targeted geoengineering can delay Arctic sea ice decline but not global warming” on Thursday.

The scenario explored was using ten million wind-powered pumps across the Arctic to promote sea-ice formation.

“We wanted to know whether this manipulation of the Arctic sea ice could work in purely physical terms, and what effects it would have on the climate,” Zampieri, an environmental physicist and doctoral candidate from the AWI’s sea-ice prediction research group, said in a news release on Thursday.

Their study found that although the scenario could push back the loss of summer sea ice from mid-century to the end of the century, it still would not have any meaningful effect on global warming.

In the scenario, the wind-powered pumps would pump sea water onto the ice in winter where it would then freeze, allowing the ice to thicken and  better withstand the warmer summer temperatures.

Arctic ice management graphics. A recent study found that pumps churning seawater onto the ice year after year would result in a gain of between one and two metres in thickness. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut)

 “Normally the growth of the ice is limited by the fact that, as it becomes thicker, the ice increasingly insulates the ocean from the winter cold; for this reason, typically you won’t find an overall thickness of more than a few metres,” Goessling said. “But the pumps do away with this limiting effect, because new layers are added to the ice from above.”

In the summer, the greater sea ice surface could better reflect sunlight, instead of dark ocean water absorbing sunlight.

However, researchers found that wouldn’t be enough to effect the warming climate long term.

“Though the warming of the Arctic in summer would be reduced by roughly one degree Celsius, and the loss of the sea ice could be delayed by roughly 60 years, the increased reflection of sunlight wouldn’t be sufficient to slow climate change outside the Arctic,” the news release said. 

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  2019 shaping up to be the second or third warmest year on record, says WMO provisional report, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Warmer, drier summer than usual in most of Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenlanders stay chill as the world reacts to their heatwave, CBC News

Iceland: Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calls for climate action at Arctic Circle assembly, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Warm winter expected across the Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: IPCC climate report warns “extreme sea level events” will occur frequently, Radio Sweden

United States: The Arctic shipping route no one is talking about, Cryopolitics Blog

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is a journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project.

Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the violent death of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on violence and trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

Twitter: @Arctic_EQ

Email: eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

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