Warming Arctic Urgently Needs First Aid

By Leslie Field, Ph.D. & Felix Kramer

The Arctic is getting warmer and losing its ice. That’s contributing to extreme weather at home and worldwide and adding risks to global climate and social stability. We need to start responding now.

We can no longer dismiss climate change in the Arctic as a distant and decades-away phenomenon. What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. As added heating in the Arctic accounts for 25-50% of global temperature rise, we're now seeing effects throughout the world, including sea level rise, devastating storms, droughts, and wildfires.

In late 2017, newspapers headlined an influential research group’s alarming conclusion that the “Arctic shows no sign of returning to [the] reliably frozen region of recent past decades.” Scientists from 12 nations collaborated on the annual peer-reviewed Report Card from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The critical portion of ice that persists longer than a year plunged from 45% in 1985 to 21% in 2017.

How can this be happening? While new Arctic ice still forms every winter, it's thinner and less reflective than the thick multi-year ice that used to cover much of the Arctic. Thinner ice melts faster, adding to the Arctic's summer heat load and absorbing much more solar energy.

A one-minute video from NOAA shows what's happened since 1990. The Arctic could lose all its summertime ice as soon as 2030. This isn’t news to most ice scientists, but it's only now coming to popular attention. We can't let that happen.

The need for action now to preserve Arctic ice is clear and urgent to protect lives, property, communities, and habitats. Near-term processes and long-term threats include:

  • More extreme weather patterns like droughts. A warming Arctic leads to warmer tropics and atmospheric patterns contributing to conditions like the severe 2012-16 California drought.
  • Bitterly cold weather in some regions. This year's East Coast Polar Vortex and Europe’s extreme cold are linked to changing weather patterns, with loss of Arctic ice destabilizing the jet stream.
  • The potential for massive greenhouse gas release. The melting northern tundra and permafrost contain large amounts of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • Rapid sea level rise. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting. If it all melted we could see 24 feet of sea level rise, endangering all the world’s major coastal cities.

There’s hope only if we deploy safe and reversible arctic restoration solutions. Planning for an international response to the Arctic emergency must begin this year.

That starts with capturing the attention of global thought-leaders in the public, private, and NGO sectors and gaining their commitment to restoring the Arctic's permanent thick ice, removing a key factor in global extreme weather and protecting us from multiple threats.

These global influencers can take the lead to explore and support evaluation of options, address issues of governance, and set responses in motion. Investors, philanthropists, organizations and governments, and international institutions can make a priority to analyze, sponsor, and accelerate field tests of approaches such as.

  • Spread safe materials on ice to increase its reflectivity: Ice911 Research, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit research company, uses reversible methods, spreading hollow spheres of floating sand on the ice, not Arctic-wide but in strategically targeted locations to rebuild its reflectivity. Over time these sand granules harmlessly join shorelines and the ocean floor. Climate modeling shows this technique slowing ice loss and rebuilding Arctic ice over time, nudging the climate back towards historical patterns.
  • Spray ocean water on top of sea ice: Scientists at Arizona State University are exploring using wind-powered pumps to build up Arctic sea ice in the winter. In the cold and dark conditions in the Arctic winter, the spray will freeze quickly. Thickened sea ice in winter will mean less summer melt. The ASU team is working to move from modeling to lab-scale testing.
  • Spray salt water into the air to make Arctic clouds more reflective and increase regional cooling: A University of Washington team has been joined by Silicon Valley technologists on the Marine Cloud Brightening Project.

The world is responding to climate change with critically needed steps for conservation, decarbonization, adaptation, and carbon dioxide removal. Restoring the Arctic ice with evaluation and coordination to model, test, develop, and carefully begin permitting and scaled deployment of safety-evaluated solutions needs to happen as well, and on a much faster timetable.

The Arctic is ground zero for global climate change. We can't sit back, watch it change beyond recognition, and lose the earth’s reflective shield. The time for life-saving first aid for Arctic ice starts now.

Leslie Field, Ph.D. is Founder & CEO of Ice911 Research, Stanford Lecturer, and Director of the Polar Restoration Action Group.

Felix Kramer is a serial entrepreneur advising the Healthy Climate Alliance and other climate projects.