Construction Corner: ‘Air conditioning the Arctic’ being explored by experts

0 1530 Technology

by KOrky Koroluk

Here's one for the engineers among you. The American Geophysical Union published a research article last month exploring the possibility of increasing the thickness of ice in Arctic waters in a bid to slow global warming.
Construction Corner: ‘Air conditioning the Arctic’ being explored by experts

Loss of Arctic ice gets worse every year, which is bad news, since that ice loss is a key element in the climate system. Since satellite measurements began in 1979, the extent of Arctic sea ice has declined by between 3.5 per cent and 4.1 per cent per decade and the pace appears to be accelerating.

So the article suggests that a fleet of wind-powered pumps mounted on buoys be deployed in the Arctic to pump water from beneath the ice, then spray it on surface, where it would quickly freeze. Using this method, it says, it should be possible to increase the thickness of the Arctic ice by about a metre every winter — more than enough to reverse the decline.

It would be like air conditioning the Arctic.

The article is the work of Steven Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, and a team 13 other scientists and students.

Some of the numbers it contains are mind-boggling.

For example: The area of the Arctic Ocean is about 10-million square kilometres. If the pumps were to be distributed across just 10 per cent of that area, about 10-million pumps would be needed. Assuming implementation over 10 years, it would mean deploying a million a year.

Each wind turbine, the pump it would house, plus the buoy it sits on would contain about 10 tonnes of steel. That means to build a fleet of 10-million pumps over 10 years would require roughly 10-million tonnes of steel per year.

By way of comparison, the United States presently produces about 80-million tonnes of steel annually and world production of steel is about 1.6-million tonnes, half of that coming from China.

The price? About US$50 billion a year for 10 years. And that's just for 10-million devices covering 10 per cent of the Arctic. If you want to cover the entire Arctic, you'd be looking at US$500 billion a year for 10 years.

There are open questions, of course.

Would the pumps operate reliably over many years in the harsh Arctic conditions? What impact would so many pumps have on the environment? Can the system be scaled up from a local to a regional scale? And, as always, who pays how much?

At US$500 billion, such a project would be beyond the means of any one nation. As somebody pointed out, that's more than a quarter of Canada's gross domestic product. As someone else pointed out, the U.S. Apollo space program that put humans on the moon cost US$110 billion in today's money.

Even spreading the work over 10 years would mean a cost of US$50 billion a year.

So let's be real here. If you're working for a construction company and have experience in the Far North, you may find all this interesting, but don't expect to see a tender call any time soon.

This would be climate engineering on a grand scale.

But Desch says it would be just a Band-Aid solution to keep Arctic sea ice until international climate change mitigation measures are scaled up more substantially.

Desch noted in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that "our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels.

"It's a good idea, but it is going to need a lot more than that to stop the Arctic's sea ice from disappearing," he said.

A prototype of the buoy-pumps will be tested later this year.

If you're an engineer reading this, you may want to see the entire research article and work through the math it contains.

Its title is Arctic Ice Management and it's a free download from

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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