The amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean shrunk to an all time low in September, with the area covered now only half of what it was in the 1980s. This alarming development along with the global community’s inability to come to a consensus about cutting CO2 emissions has led Harvard professor of applied physics David Keith to look at a technological solution to reversing the warming of the Arctic. In a paper published in Nature Climate Change and an affiliated study in the Environmental Research Letters, Keith proposes a way to refreeze the Arctic through geoengineering.
Injecting reflective particles into the high atmosphere could reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, counteracting the greenhouse gas effect. High CO2 levels would continue to trap heat in the atmosphere, but with less energy coming in, temperatures on the surface would go down. Keith suggests using the method for a regional correction to restore the ice cover in the Arctic. In his paper, he claims that “with an average solar reduction of only 0.5%, it is possible to recover pre-industrial sea ice extent.” A separate paper shows that this could all be done with a few modified Gulfstream jets and is estimated to cost around $8 billion, which is about the price of a installing a major oil pipeline.
But large-scale geoengineering like what Keith is suggesting is banned by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity because it could result in disastrous unintended consequences. Even Keith acknowledges that manually refreezing the arctic is not the right way to solve the larger problem of global warming. He thinks that this level of geoengineering would only be appropriate to consider in states of emergency such as a sudden collapse of ice sheets or a killing drought. But first, we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and he warns that “if we do this and we do not cut emissions, we just walk further and further off the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote.”