The Radical Plan to Reduce Rising Sea Levels by Pumping Water Onto Antarctica

March 16, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

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Could it really work?

Governments all around the world are trying to develop strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as determining ways of adapting to the inevitable environmental changes that will occur due to the gases already released into the atmosphere.

Geoengineering, or reshaping the planet in a substantial way, is one of the methods being considered to mitigate the damage caused by human activities. It often refers to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or preventing sunlight from warming the surface by reflecting it back into space.

However, a new study is investigating a rather radical solution: Enlarging Antarctica’s continental glacier by pumping ocean water onto its icy surface. Sounds a little crazy, right?

SEE ALSO: Collapse of a Greenland Glacier Would Raise Sea Levels by 18 Inches

Nevertheless, if it works and the ice sheet grows larger and thicker, it could potentially freeze up large volumes of water and slow or even halt the global trend of rising sea levels.

Clearly, this approach would be addressing one of the symptoms of climate change rather than dealing with the primary driver — greenhouse gas emissions.

“Some argue we shouldn’t even contemplate [geoengineering], as it’s too dangerous to the planet,” says Karen Pinkus, of the Faculty Advisory Board at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor (CSM).

But geoengineering needs to be part of the discussion, says Dr. Pinkus. “We took quite some time to consider whether to even carry out this research because [Antarctica is] practically the only place humans haven’t interfered with yet,” says climatologist and co-author Anders Levermann, in a telephone interview with the CSM.

The study, published in Earth System Dynamics, used computer simulations to assess the costs and benefits of trying to enlarge Antarctica’s ice. The team modeled Antarctica using standard ice flow models, but put extra snow onto the eastern section of the continent — where the ice moves the slowest — in the amount that would need to be taken out of the oceans to avoid sea-level rise.

“What we found was that the extra snow created an ice wave, which pushes coastal ice into the ocean,” Levermann explained to CSM. “It’s like a sandwich, with the extra pressure squeezing out the mayonnaise.”

The squeezing happened even if they dumped the snow hundreds of miles from the coast. However, it did slow this natural squeezing process by as much as 1,000 years.  

SEE ALSO: Burning All Our Fossil Fuels Would Melt Antarctica Entirely

That’s the good news.  Now, for the costs.

As you can imagine, pumping a large volume of water onto Antarctica will require energy.  In fact, it would require seven percent of the global energy supply every single year!

“At the moment, it looks as though this endeavor would be so huge that it’s not worth the trouble,” Levermann said to CSM. “And even if we did it, you would only eliminate the currently observed sea level rise.”

Unfortunately, even if the agreements set during the Paris Climate Conference are implemented and met, the oceans will still rise by two to seven feet by the end of this century.

Does loading Antarctica with ice seem worth it? Or should we continue to focus our attention on reducing what is causing ocean levels to rise in the first place?

Let us know your thoughts below!

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