Can glaciers be engineered to buy us time?

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Can glaciers be engineered to buy us time?

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A Cli-Fi writer highlights scientific research on ways to slow sea-level rise.

One of the central effects of climate change is possibly the most painful to consider — global warming accelerating the melting of glaciers into the sea causing sea level rise. The potential scale of sea-level rise threatens everything from beaches to polar bears, from whole island cultures to coastal metropolises from Calcutta to St. Petersburg and New York City.

This process is already in motion, but seemingly unmanageable. Yes, we have caused the melting of the polar ice caps, but no, it doesn’t look like something we can repair or even slow. And it will continue for a long, long time, even if we are incredibly successful at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But are there possible solutions? In a commentary recently published by Bloomberg, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls on nations to join forces, repurpose the capacity and technology of the oil drilling industry and deploy naval resources to attempt a stop-gap measure. The idea is to drill down through key glaciers and pump meltwater out from underneath. In theory, this would allow the water to refreeze on the surface, and at the same time cause the glacier to settle back onto the rock bed, slowing its slide towards the sea. 

It’s an idea Robinson explored in his 2020 book The Ministry for the Future, alongside other mega ideas for combating climate change and surviving in a warmer world — such as rewilding vast stretches of the earth, reinventing agriculture and overhauling the global financial system to strictly account for, and limit, carbon emissions. The idea Robinson focuses on in his commentary falls into the controversial category of geoengineering.

“Pumping meltwater out of one type of geologic formation isn’t so different from pumping crude and methane out of another,” Robinson argues. “So the oil giants could help to rescue us from a situation their earlier output did much to create.”

“The logistical demands of this project would be huge,” he acknowledges. “It would require sea-, air- and ice-based operations … This suggests it’s a project for international cooperation, something that might seem vanishingly unlikely at a moment of warfare in Europe.”

But he suggests, it’s worth exploring, nonetheless, when the stakes are so high for all nations. “Success in Antarctica and Greenland would give us time to deal with all our other pressing climate-related problems, without the coastlines drowning to add to our woes.”

“Oil giants could help to rescue us from a situation their earlier output did much to create.”

In writing about climate intervention at the glacier level, Robinson is tapping into real research by glaciologists. A 2016 paper published by German and American researchers concluded through simulations that pumping water to the surface could result in a “significant delay of future sea-level rise.” Among the hurdles, both geopolitical and technical for such a massive project is the amount of energy required — equal to about 7% of the global energy supply. To generate that amount would require a monumental build-up of wind energy — some 12,000 high-end wind turbines just to pump out the water — according to a subsequent paper by the same authors. 

And even then, “… the effective total power demand of the endeavor including potential desalination and heating of the ocean water, as well as snowmaking, carried out under the difficult circumstances of the Antarctic climate, could be much higher, requiring careful assessment by engineering experts,” they wrote.

And, critically, the projected success of this effort is premised on “simultaneous drastic reduction of global CO2 emissions.” In other words, this is not a replacement for cutting climate-warming greenhouse gases.

Success in Antarctica and Greenland would give us time to deal with all our other pressing climate-related problems, without the coastlines drowning to add to our woes.”

But, as the authors note, addressing sea-level rise at the glacier is an approach that promises “comprehensive protection for entire coastlines” including poor coastal communities and places where it’s difficult to build dykes, such as southern Florida, where the base rock is limestone.

Scientists are studying this and an array of other interventions to slow glacier melting — like ways of increasing the reflectivity of the glacier surfaces, seeding clouds and creating subterranean obstacles — all highly technical and controversial. Authors of a 2020 report reviewing these research proposals were clear in their caution about the technical, moral and environmental hazards. 

“Not all of these ideas are judged reasonable or feasible, and even fewer are likely to be found to be advisable after further consideration,“ they wrote. “By describing and evaluating the potential and risks of a large menu of responses — even apparently hopeless ones — we can increase the chances of finding one that works in times of need.”

Written by

Kari Huus

Kari Huus is a writer and editor based in Seattle. She was a staff reporter for from 1996-2014, with stints covering international business, foreign policy, and national affairs. Earlier, she reported on China for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, and Newsweek in Beijing. From 2015 to 2020, she was managing editor for the website Money Talks News.