Crazy proposal to use glass to save the Arctic could backfire, scientists warn

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists abandoned the crazy idea of ​​using tiny hollow glass beads to stop sea ice loss, finding that a microsphere coating would actually speed up the melting of the ice, not slow it down.

In 2018, the authors of the study proposed spraying layers of glass powder in the form of hollow glass spheres as thick as a human hair over Arctic sea ice to make its surface brighter.

This, according to the authors of the study, will increase the amount of sunlight reflected by the part of the world that is experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change, reduce surface temperatures and give sea ice a chance to recover.

Satellite data show that sea ice in the Arctic is “melting at an alarming rate.” Modeling shows that by 2050 it could disappear completely during the Arctic summer. But a new study offers a comprehensive set of calculations showing why tiny glass beads are not the way to go.

“Our results indicate that the proposed efforts to halt the loss of Arctic sea ice are having the opposite effect of what was intended,” said Melinda Webster, a polar scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. “And this is detrimental to the Earth’s climate and human society as a whole.”

Webster teamed up with University of Washington atmospheric scientist Stephen Warren to test the claims of a 2018 study that concluded that a layer of 65 micrometer-wide glass spheres distributed at a depth of about five beads could increase the reflectivity and thickness of Arctic sea ice. .

While the 2018 study only looked at thin sea ice with little snow cover, the duo calculated solar energy changes for eight types of sea ice that occur in the Arctic at different times of the year. They simulated the same thickness and type of hollow glass microspheres.

Unlike the previous study, they took into account seasonal snow and meltwater coverage, as well as sunlight at sea level and in the upper atmosphere, cloud cover, and how the beads interact with sunlight.

Layers of microspheres can make new thin ice more reflective, a 2018 study found. But the effect of the glass beads will be minimal because thin ice forms mostly in autumn and winter when sunlight is scarce, Webster and Warren write.

In the spring, most Arctic sea ice is covered in bright white deep snow that is highly reflective, so adding glass beads will actually darken the surface of the sea ice at that time of year, resulting in more warming and ice loss.

“Because the hollow glass microspheres absorb some of the sunlight, applying them to sea ice will darken bright surfaces such as snow-covered ice,” Webster and Warren write.

“The net result is the opposite of what was expected: the spread of hollow glass microspheres will lead to a warming of the Arctic climate and accelerate the loss of sea ice.”

Although the hollow glass microspheres reflect much of the sunlight, the thin layer of beads still absorbs about 10 percent of the sun’s energy – enough to accelerate warming in the Arctic.

If non-absorbent glass beads could be developed, they could cool the Arctic climate – but that would require 360 ​​million tons of hollow glass beads tossed across sea ice every year, Webster and Warren found.

Even if they worked in theory, the production and transportation of these beads would increase carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Simply put, this is not the kind of climate change action we need; the main thing is to reduce carbon emissions.

And if we’re talking about environmental restoration, it’s better to focus on restoring forests, swamps, peatlands and seaweed ecosystems, which can absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide if done right.

In the decades we’ve spent doing nothing about climate change, we’ve already lost more than half of the Arctic’s permanent ice.

“Using microspheres as a way to reclaim Arctic sea ice is not feasible,” says Webster. “While science must continue to explore ways to mitigate the effects of global warming, it is best for society to reduce the behavior that continues to contribute to climate change.”

Fortunately, we already know how to do this, and the result – reducing carbon emissions – is much safer than betting on incredibly risky and largely untested geoengineering strategies.

Making changes to the heat-absorbing environment of buildings by whitewashing roofs and greening cities can also be a good start.


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