Why refreezing the Arctic is far more sensible than it sounds

Sensible, well-planned climate repair is a serious part of our toolkit

December 07, 2022
© Alamy
© Alamy

I’m now used to the stares I get when I suggest refreezing the Arctic—the polite puzzlement, and occasionally less polite reaction of TV news anchors. But this incredulity reveals more about our own attitudes to climate change. Despite the rhetoric, we haven’t yet grasped how high, wide and deep the threat is. If it came in the shape of a Hollywood-style asteroid, all options would be on the table.

It’s clear that our collective action isn’t enough to limit the rise to 1.5°C, let alone to start undoing our historical emissions to bring this down to safer levels. We are in the business of buying time and are in the market for approaches that can hold the minute hand of the doomsday clock back from midnight long enough for the world to complete the net-zero transition.

Sensible, proportionate climate repair must be part of our plan. This includes removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere—as logical as taking pollution from a stream. And, packaged with this, refreezing the Arctic. Not as some aesthetic restoration, but an urgent fix—sealing a crack in a dam that threatens to sabotage our wider efforts if not prioritised.

It now looks certain that we have passed a thermodynamic tipping point in the arctic

It now looks certain that we have passed a thermodynamic tipping point in the Arctic. The loss of summer Arctic sea ice—domino one—is accelerating the melting of ice on Greenland—domino two—which is the problem for sea levels, meaning dominos three through to 100 will almost all involve the devastation of our global cities.

This might sound hyperbolic. But if Greenland is allowed to melt, sea levels will rise by seven metres. This truly is the stuff of Hollywood disaster movies.

The good news is we’re not talking about shipping in hotel ice machines. What climate repair scientists are proposing is a programme of Arctic temperature stabilisation, most probably achieved by the method of spraying salty sea water into the clouds over the Arctic. This will brighten them, reflecting sufficient sunlight in the summer to maintain the sea ice formed in the winter, and cut off this chain reaction at its source.

The equally good news is that this global win doesn’t need a global team, and as such can avoid being delayed by protracted global processes, like COP. Instead, it can be conceivably achieved by a handful of nations working and funding in concert. Global agreement is needed, however, to carry it through.

Climate repair has risks if not done right, or if conceived as an “instead of” rather than an “as well as” when it comes to the wider goal of cutting back emissions. But sensible, well-planned climate repair is a serious part of our toolkit. The UK should help lead this effort—demonstrating its commitment to preventing dangerous climate change and using its relative wealth to buy everyone some time. This time is needed to achieve deep and rapid emissions reduction globally and to remove excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.