The Arctic although seemingly barren and harsh withstands some of the greatest extremes in weather, temperatures and light intensities in the world yet is still home to a complex and thriving ecosystem.
The Arctic runs on a regular cycle. During winter, the surface of the sea freezes creating a desolate sheet of white, blanketed in up to two months of absolute darkness. Once spring emerges, animals such as polar bears come out of hibernation, the days begin to lengthen, and the ice starts to melt. By summer there are weeks of 24-hour sunlight, the ice continues to melt, with wildlife and flora thriving in warmer temperatures. Autumn, however, soon appears, the ice starts to reform, wildlife begins to migrate or hibernate, and the days shorten.
This cycle however, is being interrupted. As the rate of global warming has accelerated over the past millennium, the Arctic has seen devastating consequences. Currently, it has been losing sea ice at a rate of 13% per decade and it is predicted that by the end of the 21st century there will be no more year-round sea ice in the Arctic.
The importance of protecting the Arctic:
The loss of ice will mean thousands of animals must either adapt, migrate or are destined to die. Polar bears for example are reliant on the ice to hunt. Reindeer, foxes and seals also all need the ice as a part of their ingrained lifestyles. Once the ice has all melted this ecosystem will no longer be able to survive. Whole populations will undoubtedly go extinct due to the speed at which this change is happening, not giving them enough time to adapt. This will cause a knock-on effect on other species and ecosystems globally.
In addition to the loss of the local ecosystem, the melting ice will have many more secondary effects.
White sea ice reflects solar rays back into space whereas the deep blue ocean absorbs the rays leading to heat being transferred into the water. As more ice melts more solar radiation will be absorbed into our seas – known as the albedo effect and is part of the vicious downward spiral that global warming is causing. This is causing the Arctic’s average temperature to increase at double the rate of anywhere else on Earth. In addition, this has caused warmer sea temperatures which are disturbing global ocean circulation. Furthermore, this has caused the polar vortex (cold, low-pressure winds surrounding the Arctic) to swoop lower than normal which in turn has disturbed the Jet Stream. This will cause more severe heat waves and weather events which could cause damage to crops globally. This will increase food insecurity across the world and continue to increase the challenge of feeding the growing global population.
Secondly, the Arctic ice holds huge volumes of methane and other greenhouse gases locked up in small air pockets. As the ice melts these gasses will be released into the atmosphere which will further accelerate the rate of global warming.
Potentially most critically as a result of the warming Arctic, the rate of the Greenland ice shelf melting is increasing which could see sea levels rise by up to 7 metres. This would have devastating effects on human civilisation. The areas of land that would be submerged or put under extreme flooding risk are currently home to 150 million people.
In order to try to save the world from the damaging and possibly irreversible effects that losing the Arctic could cause, there have been many innovative ideas and projects suggested for its revival.
Solutions to saving the Arctic:
First, an idea by 29-year-old architect, Faris Rajak Kotahatuhaha, who designed a submersible vessel which would be capable of producing 16-foot-thick, 82-foot-wide hexagon icebergs.
The vessels would submerge themselves underwater and then let seawater fill their cavity. The salt would then be filtered out so that the water could freeze at a higher temperature and finally, the hatch would close blocking the water from the sun. The icebergs would then naturally form in the sub-zero temperatures and a month later each iceberg would be released.
However, this project poses many problems. Firstly, given it takes a month to produce each cube, it has been predicted that it would require 10 million vessels to replace the ice at the same rate that it has been disappearing. Faris accepts the rather futile nature of this project however he hopes it will spark interest and more innovative solutions to tackling climate change. In an interview, he said, “if there are too many limitations, there will be no innovation”.
Another idea has been spawned by the British company, Real Ice. It proposes a plan to circulate millions of water pumps around the Arctic running on renewable energy, most probably wind power, so that they can work in the absence of sunlight. They would flood the top of the ice with water in the winter months and due to the temperature difference between the sea and the air, water which is on the surface of the ice (-50°C) will freeze much faster than in the ocean (-30°C). As more ice freezes, the sheets will become thicker and so in the summer months, when the ice melts due to the sun and rising temperatures, it is predicted that the sheets, which would have otherwise melted, would retain a thickness of 2 meters and so would continue to support the ecosystem and albedo effect.
The photo demonstrates a prototype which the company made. However, this project still has many problems. Mainly, how will the company be able to raise enough money to implement the millions of machines needed to really make an impact. In addition, given the remoteness of the Arctic, who would service them, and could they cause unseen consequences to the natural habitat?
Solar radiation management
A debatably more feasible idea is to pump stratospheric sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere, creating a similar result to volcanic eruptions. The thick layer of aerosols in the atmosphere would reflect solar rays immediately back into the atmosphere. As a result, the Arctic would start to cool which would stimulate the regrowth of the Arctic ice.
The underlying problem with these solutions:
The issue with these three solutions is that they are only local, they do not address the challenge of climate change on a global scale and are only short-term solutions. In order to truly save the Arctic global transformations must take place. We must transform our economy away from fossil fuel-based production and begin to take responsibility for our excessive use of finite resources and unsustainable lifestyles. It is predicted that as a global population we are using 1.5x the resources the earth can reproduce each year, a figure set to double within the next decade. We also pump 50 billion tonnes of ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’ into the atmosphere each year accelerating global warming. Simply put, there is almost no long-term hope for the Arctic unless global initiatives are taken to reverse these figures. The short-term solutions mentioned above, although possibly successful, will only be effective for so long – they address the symptoms, not the cause.