These scientists think giant machines could help refreeze the Arctic

Pools of melt are becoming more common on the ice in the Arctic Sea.

Story highlights

  • Scientists propose building 10 million machines to refreeze part of the Arctic Sea
  • 'There will be no summer sea ice by 2030' on the Arctic, says study

(CNN)A team of scientists has a surprisingly simple solution to saving the Arctic: We need to make more ice.

A team at Arizona State University has proposed building 10 million wind-powered pumps to draw up water and spill it out onto the surface of the ice, where it will freeze faster.
Doing so would be complicated and expensive -- it's estimated to cost a cool $500 billion, and right now the proposal is only theoretical.
    But the need to solve the problem is urgent, said professor of astrophysics Steven Desch. He and a team of scientists published a study about how to refreeze parts of the Arctic in the December 2016 issue of the "Earth's Future" journal.
    The inspiration came to Desch after attending several climate change conferences in 2012.
    "I came away thinking while the climate scientists had correctly identified the problems and the urgency of needing to solve them, they had no good solutions -- basically to stop CO2 emissions," Desch said.
    "There will be no summer sea ice by 2030 and nothing we do on the world stage is going to change that in time. We're not going to cut back CO2 emissions in time to prevent that outcome."

    How it would work

    The giant water pumps would sit on buoys floating in the Arctic Sea. They would take up water from beneath the ice, store it in a tank and then spray the water on top of the ice.
    The top of the ice sheet is the coldest part, so getting the water on top of the ice would make it freeze faster, Desch explained.
    The machines would be powered by the wind, which is plentiful in the Arctic, in a similar way to windmills you see creating power on farms.
    The team estimates in the paper that 10 million devices could add a meter of sea ice onto the current level of ice over the course of a winter. That's a meter of ice on each tenth of a square kilometer.
    "That's a significant change," said Desch. The sea ice only grows two to three meters in thickness during the winter.
    To make a dent in the loss of ice, you would need to cover about 10% of the Arctic, which adds up to 10 million machines, he said.
    "If you could do that, it would reverse the trend of the loss of sea ice. You could restore it to what it was over 15 years ago."

    Why the ice is melting

    Sea snow and ice reflect a considerable amount of sunlight -- snow reflects 90% and ice reflects a lesser amount. But, when there's just open water, that much-needed reflection of the sun doesn't happen.
    Open water absorbs more sunlight, which is another reason why Arctic waters are warming.
    Current efforts to curb CO2 emissions just aren't doing enough, according to the study. We risk losing all summer Arctic sea ice by 2030.
    More than just ice is affected, though. The loss of sea ice makes it harder for Polar bears to find food. It's also affecting the number of Arctic cod, which like cold waters, particularly those covered by sea ice.
    "The Arctic is the most fragile part of our climate system," Desch said.

    Will this really work?

    Julienne Stroeve, who wasn't involved with the study, doesn't believe this approach is feasible. Stroeve is a professor at University College London and also a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
    "Global warming in response to rising CO2 concentrations would continue despite efforts to grow ice in the Arctic," she said. "Thus, the excess heat at lower latitudes would still be transported towards the Arctic via atmospheric and oceanic circulation and this would counter efforts to grow ice in the Arctic."
    Desch agreed that the proposal is only part of the larger equation of solving the disappearance of Arctic ice.
    The plan would only be a "band aid," he said. Cutting CO2 emissions would also be crucial in saving Arctic ice in the long run.
    "Our motive with this paper is to provoke a discussion about these things to get across the idea that we need to manage the ice on the Arctic, and of course to cut CO2 emissions."
    The refreezing proposal is only theoretical at this time. Desch and his team are trying to build a prototype and test it this year.
    "It's ambitions and a little bit crazy in scope, but all of the options on the table are a little bit crazy," Desch said. "The current state of things is nothing. That's crazy."