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Adding 8 trillion tons of artificial snow to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could stop from collapsing. Should we do it?

There are a heck of a lot of reasons not to.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
Thwaits_Glacier.jpg

The Thwaites Glacier, part of the "weak underbelly" of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This glacier is unusually broad, and is highly vulnerable to retreat. Image Credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Gird your loins, humans: The time has come to turn part of the South Pole into our own giant snow globe.

Or has it?

In a study published today in the journal Science Advances, a team of German researchers suggests that dumping 8 trillion tons of artificial snow onto the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could prevent its collapse. This would, in turn, stave off devastating sea level rises due to continued glacial melt.

The faux frost intervention would come in the form of human-made blizzards, distributed by snow cannons pumped full of frozen, desalinated ocean water—a feat of engineering that’s never been accomplished before. It could also mean risking many of the fragile ecosystems the region supports.

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Let’s be clear: The idea is risky, to say the least, and no one—including the researchers themselves—is planning to act on it just yet. But extreme circumstances call for extreme (hypothetical) solutions, the researchers say. Implementing such a strategy could mean saving coastal cities worldwide from inevitable inundation as sea levels climb.

“[In the long term], global metropolises from New York to Shanghai...will be below sea level if nothing is done,” study author Anders Levermann, a physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Columbia University, said in a statement.

That’s a sobering prospect—but also, perhaps, a very real one. As things stand, West Antarctica’s glaciers aren’t long for this world. And if these majestic ice sheets collapse completely, this loss alone could raise sea levels by more than 10 feet.

Some of this disaster could be mitigated if the world makes a serious effort to rein in its carbon emissions, as per the guidelines set forth by the Paris Agreement. But this would take years, and even best case scenarios wouldn’t completely forestall sea level rise, or bring polar ice back to baseline.

This new idea, on the other hand, might be the closest thing we have to a quick fix—at least, for this region. As warm water flows beneath them, West Antarctic glaciers are becoming increasingly precarious. Blasting a gargantuan amount of snow onto the surface, the researchers say, would bolster the ice sheet and restore some of that lost stability.

The researchers’ computer simulation showed that adding back about 32 feet of this artificial ice each year for the next decade would be enough to preserve the glaciers.

For anyone who’s keeping count, that’s a lot of ice—six orders of magnitude more than the volume of the Panama Canal, Jane Flegal, a science policy expert and adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study, told Brian Kahn at Earther.

The technique, which would necessitate collecting, desalinating, transporting, and distributing ocean water, also wouldn’t come cheap, energetically speaking. Drawing the water up to the appropriate elevation alone would require the electricity of 12,000 high-powered wind turbines, the study notes.

Engineering needs alone could be enough to nip this idea in the bud, Beijing Normal University’s John Moore, who was not involved in the study, told Hannah Osborne at Newsweek. “Many people can think of solutions that might sound plausible, but which require feats of engineering or consumption of resources that are untenable,” he said. “I think this is one of them.”

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The Getz Ice Shelf, which helps keep the West Antarctic Ice Sheet stable. Image Credit: NASA/Jeremy Harbeck

Even if the technological hurdles could be overcome, deploying these snow cannons could also pose a serious threat to marine life that would inevitably suffer the effects of disruptions from machines, as well as the literal drain on their watery habitat.

Levermann fully owns up to the devastating effects the strategy would have on the ecosystem, as it would transform much of Antarctica into “an industrial compound,” he told Osborne. “No one wants that. But [the ecosystem] would be altered anyway by the collapse of the ice sheet.”

What’s more, their model assumed that the current climate and, in turn, global temperatures, will hold steady over the next decade—an unlikely scenario.

And that’s all assuming the process would work. Such a large-scale glacial rejiggering could still backfire. Researchers don’t fully understand the dynamics of ice sheets, and artificially thickened ice might actually be more prone to break off and melt into the sea, Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the study, told Richard A. Lovett at Cosmos.

That said, the current study is not about what should or shouldn’t happen as the climate continues to change, the authors stress. This is just one possibility, and “the apparent absurdity of the endeavor...reflects the breath-taking dimension of the sea-level problem,” Levermann said in the statement. “In order to prevent an unprecedented risk, humankind might have to make an unprecedented effort, too.”

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