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Ice-making submarines could fight climate change by refreezing the Arctic

A scientific team based out of Indonesia suggests that melted Arctic ice can be replenished by ice-creating submarines.

Aug 8, 2019 |
5 min read

Arctic ice has been on the decline for several years. Ice sheets that were older than civilization have now melted into seawater thanks to rising ocean temperatures and the widespread problem of climate change.

That said, several teams are working to present solutions to this problem. One group, based out of Indonesia, recently proposed an unconventional solution to the problem of ice loss: why not make more ice?

The team anticipates attempting to take on this challenge with the assistance of ecologically-sound submarines. This is where the trouble arises, though. While the team would be replenishing the Arctic ice, their subs may release more carbon into the water and air, further worsening the impact of greenhouse gases on the arctic.

What, specifically, though, does the team intend to do? What kind of complications could arise? While the solution of “making more ice” seems relatively straightforward, it serves as a catchy byline to a project that’s far more complicated.

The immediate problem: melting Arctic ice

Arctic ice melt is not a new problem. The ice around the Arctic Circle has been on the decline for three decades. As of 2019, the ice sheets that once inspired children’s imaginations have declined by 95 percent, according to the latest Arctic Report Card released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The problem here is a complicated one. The water in the Arctic Circle still refreezes – to a point – in the colder months of the year. However, greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent warmth they produce have caused the oldest of the Arctic ice to melt.

This older ice served as the bedrock for young ice. Without it, ice in the Arctic is thinner. The ice is less likely to form a unified continent when it freezes so thinly. As such, it’s much more difficult for the animals in the Arctic region to live as they used to.

With this vast melt-off comes worldwide consequences. Not only are Arctic ecosystems currently being compromised, but weather patterns around the world are shifting due to the increase of water in the atmosphere.

It’s predicted that the Arctic melt-off is going to impact the severity of monsoon season in Asia. The hurricanes that batter the American coastline are also likely to grow stronger as a result of this shift in saturation.

Proposing a solution

Refreezing the Arctic to replace the old ice that was lost seems simultaneously to be the most obvious and the least plausible solution. However, the team as mentioned earlier from Indonesia has proposed a plan.

They suggest that a submarine that relieved its ballast tank next to freshly-frozen “baby ice” would likely produce additional new ice. That ice would, then, stick to the naturally-frozen ice and begin to recreate the landscapes that the Arctic used to house.

This process has been referred to by the team as “Re-iceberg-ization” and works similarly to the re-forestation of jungle areas around the world. Unfortunately for the team – and as they acknowledge – it’s much easier to replenish a resource that doesn’t actively move at the whims of ocean currents.

As it stands, the ice that the potential submarine produces as a result of the team’s work will need to settle for a year after its installation. After three years, the ice can safely melt and refreeze with a reasonable amount of the Arctic circle. The team anticipates using air turbines to lower the temperature of the water they’re working into an appropriate temperature.

That said, how the team intends to maintain that temperature after their submarine leaves the area is unclear, especially as ocean temperatures continue to rise. At this time, they’ve proposed filtering salt out of the water they refreeze via the process of reverse osmosis. This would ideally purify the water and make it easier for the water to freeze in a limited amount of time.

It’s for noting, for a dose of fun, that the team in question has proposed the creation of hexagonal ice blocks. Their solution rings of the Civilization PC games, but it could be viable is appropriately funded and implemented.

The goal

The Indonesian team has put forth their workable goals alongside their re-iceberg-ization proposal. Their submarine serves as their primary concern, as the team has made their scientific ambitions relatively clear.

The submarine would have to utilize a non-petrol system to keep from releasing additional greenhouse gases into the environment. The Indonesian team wants to modify existing models to operate more flexibly in all sorts of weather, ideally allowing the vessel to take on a bulb shape to allow for increased maneuverability in the water.

The vessel will also have to be able to support the new ice that it (and its accompanying Upnormal Freezers) “births” into the Arctic sea. This involves an ability to store prospective ice underwater without that ice having to rely on the vessel for foundational support.

The takeaway

On the one hand, the proposal placed forward by the Indonesian team is a fascinating one. It demands that audience experiment with their understanding of how arctic ice operates and how humanity can interact with its environment.

On the other hand, there may be too much whimsy in this plan for it to be viably possible. Mark Serreze, director of the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, notes that the recreation of lost ice serves more like a “Band-Aid” to global climate problems than a long-lasting solution.

While replacing the ice in the Arctic Circle would ensure that the animals in that area could live as they used to, the team would likely not be able to work quickly enough to reduce the impact that already-melted ice is set to have on international weather.

Likewise, unless the team can run their operation out of a vessel that doesn’t utilize fossil fuels, they’d be doing as much harm to the environment as they would good.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the problem of climate change shouldn’t elicit creative solutions from those who would seek to reverse it. Instead, as the world faces down fast-approaching deadlines regarding the in-habitability of the planet, creativity just may serve as an antidote to overarching despair.

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