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Icebergs Antarctica
Image credit: US National Ice Center via satellite.

Climate Change

If A Glacier Collapses In Antarctica, Does It Make A Sound?

A science fiction writer has an idea for how to slow the speed of glaciers in Antarctica.

Scientists have confirmed that a hunk of the Conger Ice Shelf in Antarctica has broken off and is now floating in the Southern Ocean. The US National Ice Center says the birth of the new iceberg — named with scientific precision C-38 — was detected and monitored by the Sentinel-1A satellite. Just days later, C-38 has broken into two pieces.

Here’s the thing about ice caps. If they cover a land mass, such as Antarctica, they are storing water that has been frozen for millennia. Once they slide into the sea, however, that frozen water adds to the volume of water in the world’s oceans. Think of it this way. If you are at the Kentucky Derby slurping a Mint Julep, the level of the liquid in your glass doesn’t rise as your ice melts. But if you add more ice, there’s a danger your glass will overflow and ruin your highly fashionable togs. Think of the ocean as a really, really big Mint Julep. Do we really want to add lots more ice to ir? (The correct answer is “No,” in case you were wondering.)

The US Geological Survey has lots more information about ice caps and ocean levels. It says that while the extent of the polar ice caps cannot be calculated down to the tenth of a cubic foot, the best estimate is that if all the ice currently covering the poles were to melt, ocean levels would rise about 230 feet. Is that going to happen in your lifetime? No. But is it going to happen? Yes it is, and human activity is speeding up the process.

That’s the part that should concern us today, assuming we care a whit about future generations of humans. The observable evidence, looking through today’s headlines, is that we don’t, but there’s always hope we may come to our senses sometime before we create conditions that lead to our own demise.

Antarctica, Meet Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is a science fiction writer of some renown. I had never heard of him — not being a sci-fi aficionado — until last week, when he wrote an essay for Bloomberg Green that arrived in my inbox one morning. He has some interesting ideas about how to prevent — or at least slow down — the demise of the polar ice caps.

Why should we care what some scribe thinks about our fictional future? Because science fiction has a way of turning into reality. Jules Verne presaged the nuclear submarine long before the Nautilus was launched in 1954. It was named in honor of the undersea vessel Verne imagined in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, which was published in 1872. Verne also posited the idea of humans traveling to the moon, a notion that eventually came true thanks to JFK and the Apollo program. So don’t discount the power of imagination to drive innovation.

Robinson’s essay begins with these words: “Do you like going to the beach? Too bad. They’re all doomed.” Does he have your attention yet? He continues:

“New projections released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. put minimum sealevel rise at 12 inches within the next 28 years. That number doubles, at least, by the end of this century — and possibly rises to as high as 8 feet. Even the low end estimates, almost sure to be reached because of the anthropocentric warming that’s already occurred, would be enough to submerge almost every beach in the world. Kiss them goodbye.

“[E]very coastal city is built right to sea level. So the coming rise, even in its earliest phases, will devastate a major part of human civilization. Why this oncoming disaster isn’t discussed more is a mystery to me. Possibly it’s because people feel it’s too far in the future to worry about or too sad to contemplate. Maybe it’s because we think there’s nothing to be done about it.

“[T]he latest findings show things are speeding up more than seemed possible. The ice shelf floating off the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, for instance, looks like it might break up in the next five years. Whenever it happens, the giant glacier’s ice will slide into the sea unimpeded, at a much faster speed than before. The loss of Thwaites alone would raise sea level by 2 feet.

“This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Of course, rapid decarbonization is the main thing. But there are other methods within our power to slow the big glaciers down. These are untested, obviously, but well within our technological capabilities.”

Glaciers In Antarctica

“These big glaciers are sliding into the sea faster and faster because they’re riding on meltwater. Warming on the surface sends melted water trickling down to the beds underneath. This becomes like a water slide that allows glaciers to slip down their canyon beds as much as 10 times faster than they used to. When fragments hit the ocean as new icebergs, the melting comes quickly, and, in any case, once afloat the chunks are already displacing all the volume they ever will.

“A first step: Pump that meltwater out from under the big glaciers. This would drop them back onto their rock beds and slow them down. We know how to bore through ice sheets and pump water from under them; scientists already do that to investigate under-ice lakes and the ocean floor under ice shelves. The oil industry has all the technology and expertise necessary for the task, and because it needs to shift away from fossil fuel as fast as possible, repurposing its skills to this crucial work would be a great way to stay in business. Pumping meltwater out of one type of geologic formation isn’t so different from pumping crude and methane out of another. 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. It would require sea, air, and ice based operations. Happily, all the navies of the world are currently available to help, and they’re very well suited to the task. Aircraft carriers would be ideal as supply centers for these operations. If the point of national defense is saving one’s country from destruction, many countries with doomed coastlines ought to be willing to bring military forces to bear. Russia, for instance, with the best icebreakers in the world, is going to lose St. Petersburg. New York, Miami, London, Tokyo, Shanghai — on and on the list of vulnerable coastal cities goes. Most of the countries on Earth will suffer.”

International Cooperation

“This suggests it’s a project for international cooperation, something that might seem vanishingly unlikely at a moment of warfare in Europe. But even in the depths of the Cold War, Russian and American scientists worked together in Antarctica. In the International Geophysical Year of 1957 they studied the poles in the name of science. This time it would be for survival.

“A few years back, I thought this plan for slowing down glaciers was the idea of a single scientist, slipped to me on the side at a conference—suitable stuff for a science fiction writer. Since then, I’ve learned that the idea has been discussed among glaciologists for a decade or more. A review of glacier-slowing proposals recently published in Science Direct lists methods ranging from speculative to shovel-ready — all very inexpensive compared with the immense costs of inaction.

“Tabular icebergs that have already broken off into the ocean could be tethered to their parent ice shelves. Engineers could construct underwater anchoring points to help hold fragile ice shelves in place. Windbreaks could be built to keep snow from blowing off Antarctica into the ocean. Underwater berms could prevent warm ocean water from flowing under the ice and melting it from below. Lastly, after pumping water out from beneath glaciers, workers who’ve honed their craft in the shale patch of Texas could use those same skills to inject liquid nitrogen down there to freeze the ice to the bedrock. It would be like fracking in Antarctica; they’ll just need warmer boots.

“Everyone should be interested in these projects: oil executives, admirals, reinsurance underwriters, engineering graduate students, people who’d like to be able to lie out next to the waves in the 2040s. Working together we might be able to do it, and our chances are better the sooner we start. 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. And the beaches might survive.”

The Takeaway

All the nations of the world working together to address one of the consequences of anthropogenic climate change? Is Robinson daft? Maybe, but the imaginings of such people in the past have led to some astonishing results. Elon Musk is just the latest person to take Jules Verne’s idea of space travel and expand it a bit. Why stop at the moon? Why not go to Mars, or Alpha Centauri?

Everything he suggests is well within the realm of possibility and is not fraught with unknown and unknowable dangers like those associated with geo-engineering. So is Robinson onto something here? Let us know what you think.

 
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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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