Scientists believe that Glacial Engineering could help us to Limit Sea-level Rise

Scientists believe that Glacial Engineering could help us to Limit Sea-level Rise

Credit: Wired

Computer models show that geological engineering could help us to prevent the melting of glaciers.

Environmental pollution is probably the most critical challenge humanity faces in today’s technological world. This ever-increasing pollution is leading to some drastic changes, including the melting of glaciers, which are pushing our planet towards its destruction. According to the latest research, targeted engineering projects could be helpful in slowing down the melting of ice sheets (glaciers) and limiting sea-level rise. The role of glacial engineers is incredibly crucial in this regard but we will still need to control our emissions in order to extract maximum benefits out of this activity.

The research published in the journal ‘The Cryosphere’ revealed that a larger civil engineering project has a higher chance of success than the ones that are already in operation. Having said that, the study stressed that the reduction of pollution is still a key factor in preserving the glaciers of the Earth. John Moore, an Author of the study who is a Professor of Climate Change at the University of Lapland and a Scientist at the Beijing Normal University, referred to the complexity associated with geoengineering in the following words:

Doing geoengineering means often considering the unthinkable.”

The unthinkable idea proposed in this research is to control the sea-level rise through glacial engineering because it could lead to some seriously drastic consequences in the coming years if don’t do anything quickly about it. Moore and Michael Wolovick, a Co-author of the study, acknowledged that the term ‘geoengineering’ generally refers to a large-scale project but they are working on a more specific target (sea-level rise) to ensure that they could achieve the best possible results. The main idea of their plan is to make some changes to the geometry of the seafloor near glaciers that flow into the ocean. This will prevent these glaciers from melting further by creating an ice shelf.

Wolovick, a Researcher in the Department of Geosciences at the Princeton University, mentioned some glaciers like the Thwaites ice stream in West Antarctica that are melting quick and fast. He said,

Thwaites could easily trigger a runaway [West Antarctic] ice sheet collapse that would ultimately raise global sea level by about 3 meters.”

The first idea that the researching team looked into was to build an underwater-wall to stop the warm water from entering the base of the ice shelf as it is quite sensitive to melting. Alternatively, they decided to come up with a much simpler design by constructing artificial columns on the seafloor. Contrary to the first design, this won’t stop warm water but it will provide support to the glacier so that it could regrow. Wolovick described their findings by saying,

In either case, we were imagining very simple structures, simply piles of sand or gravel on the ocean floor. The most important result [of our study] is that a meaningful ice sheet intervention is broadly within the order of magnitude of plausible human achievements.”

Thwaites Glacier is 80 to 100 kilometers wide and is considered the largest individual source of future sea-level rise. The researchers ran computer models on this glacier and found that even the simpler designs are quite helpful in slowing down the rate of sea-level rise. According to the models, even the smallest intervention has 30% chances of successfully preventing the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. In order to implement that intervention, we will need to build 300-meter-high columns using an aggregate in the range of 0.1-1.5 cubic kilometers on the seafloor.

The analysis showed that larger, more sophisticated projects have significantly higher chances of success which could not only prevent the collapse of the ice sheet but they will also allow it to rebuild itself. A small underwater wall blocking 50% of the warm water from entering the ice shelf base will have a 70% chances of achieving the desired results and the success rate will continue to improve as the size of the wall increases. Although this research revealed a lot of positives, the researchers agreed that there is no need to start these geological projects any time soon. They mentioned that a lot of engineering details need to sort before starting such a project in one of the harshest environments on Earth.

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