Scientists Propose Giant Air Conditioning System to 'Refreeze' the Arctic

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If nothing is done, Arctic sea ice could largely disappear in the summers by 2030. . NASA

Anyone addicted to the air conditioner knows that keeping cool in the summer can be costly. But here's something that will make your electric bill woes seem like small change: scientists have proposed a wild plan to replenish the Arctic's diminishing sea ice by essentially building the world's largest air conditioning system. If instituted, the project could end up costing more than $500 billion, reports The Guardian.

At the current rate, it's been estimated that the Arctic could be virtually ice-free in the summers by as early as 2030. That's about twice as fast as climate models predicted just a few years ago, an alarming prospect. It would spell nothing short of an ecological disaster in the region.

"Juvenile Arctic cod like to hang out under the sea ice. Polar bears hunt on sea ice, and seals give birth on it. We have no idea what will happen when that lot disappears," explained Julienne Stroeve of University College London. "In addition, there is the problem of increasing numbers of warm spells during which rain falls instead of snow. That rain then freezes on the ground and forms a hard coating that prevents reindeer and caribou from finding food under the snow.”

So what to do about it? We could stop burning so many fossil fuels, which is the root cause of the global warming epidemic, but even our most ambitious plans currently in place to curb emissions won't be enough in the short term to prevent the big thaw.

Or ... we could build the world's largest air conditioner, and use it to refreeze the Arctic.

Weird? Yes, but it just might work

It's a crazy-sounding idea, but it might just work. Steven Desch, physicist at Arizona State University, is the man behind the plan. He wants to install millions of wind-powered pumps all across the Arctic that can spray seawater over what remains of the thin, icy surface in the winter so that it can freeze over. This should increase the depth of the ice by an average of about 3.2 feet all around, which is significant given that half of the current Arctic sea ice has a mean annual thickness of only 4.9 feet. It's the engineering equivalent to building a giant air conditioner.

The study has been published in the journal Earth's Future.

"Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice," said Desch. "In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly."

In fact, Desch and his team calculate that adding this much thickness to the sea ice is the equivalent of pushing time back by 17 years. The plan is so ambitious that it would require multiple governments from around the world to front the cost of production and installation; no single country could afford the cost alone.

Not long ago, geo-engineering projects such as this one seemed like extreme, last-case scenarios — but perhaps that's where we're at when it comes to Arctic sea ice.

“The question is: do I think our project would work? Yes. I am confident it would," said Desch. "But we do need to put a realistic cost on these things. We cannot keep on just telling people, ‘Stop driving your car or it’s the end of the world’. We have to give them alternative options, though equally we need to price them.”

And for a quick tutorial on why the thickness of sea ice matters, check out this NASA video: