Skip to main content
Move the World.
arctic sea ice

Lead Image courtesy of Teresa Carey

Here's another wild proposal for the list of fantastic — but fantastically interesting — geoengineering solutions to climate change: coating young Arctic sea ice with a layer of reflective glass powder.

The dazzling white coloration of Arctic sea ice does more than provide drama to one of the most dynamic climes on Earth; it actually serves as something of a giant solar mirror, reflecting the sun's rays back into space. 

According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice reflects over 80% of the sunlight that strikes its surface, which helps keep the pole cool. The colder temperatures maintained at the poles impact global climate, according to the NOAA, and the shrinking ice cover also changes sea currents. 

As that brilliant blanc begins to melt (and it is melting), darker sea water takes its place, absorbing more sunlight, and warming the ocean — until the Arctic sea ice is gone and the world is irrevocably changed.

"We're trying to break (that) feedback loop and start rebuilding," engineer Leslie Field, of the non-profit Arctic Ice Project, told the BBC.

Her idea hinges on restoring some of that reflectivity to the ice. 

Arctic sea ice needs to build up over years to become white as sunscreen; young ice is thinner and darker, the sea showing through the slushier surface. This ice absorbs more sunlight and melts away, preventing ice from making a comeback. 

Field's idea, per the BBC, is simple in concept — but complex to execute. A reflective material sprinkled atop young Arctic sea ice could potentially deflect enough sunlight to allow the ice to survive the summer, continue to build, and eventually help restore the reflective caps.

In a paper and presentation delivered at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in 2019, Field estimated the technique, deployed across the Arctic, could achieve a 15-20% increase in sea ice concentration and 1.5°C cooler temperatures across much of the North Pole.

Silica, naturally occurring in sand and used to make glass, was Field's choice. According to the BBC, Field found a company to produce tiny, hollow beads, thinner than a human hair and designed to float (although some, inevitably, sink).

Field has been scattering the silica powder over lakes and ponds in Canada and the U.S. for the past ten years. There's been some positive results; in Minnesota, a layer of the powder improved the reflectivity of pond ice by 20%. 

Field's plan is to use the silica powder only in certain fast-melting, at-risk areas — the BBC names the Fram Strait off Greenland as a potential target. (Sorry, but as cool as a sea of glass would be, that's not the endgame.)

Field estimated the technique, deployed across the Arctic, could achieve a 15-20% increase in sea ice concentration and 1.5°C cooler temperatures across much of the North Pole.

Geoengineering always poses risks, however. Some are obvious: what happens if animals ingest the silica? Since silica is already abundant in nature, Field told the BCC, it should be safe for animals. 

The beads are similar in size to some plankton's food source, as well, University of Victoria ecologist Karina Giesbrecht told the BBC. It's possible plankton could eat them by accident, inadvertently starving themselves.

There's mechanical concerns, too, over how to actually make this work.

"If you put down the silica beads in an area of fast-moving ocean currents, notably the Fram Strait, they will be quickly dispersed," Mark Serreze, a climate scientist who directs the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, told the BBC. 

It's certainly an ambitious solution, as geoengineering is wont to be. But on a scale of plausibility, from carbon capture to stellar engine, reflective silica powder on Arctic sea ice falls a bit closer to the former.

Up Next

Dangerous Jobs
The Dangerous Job of the International Ice Patrol
iceberg ice patrol
Dangerous Jobs
The Dangerous Job of the International Ice Patrol
The International Ice Patrol is a real thing. They're protecting our ships from iceberg collisions.

The International Ice Patrol is a real thing. They're protecting our ships from iceberg collisions.

Guardians of the Apocalypse
Move the Sun, Save the Earth: The Plan to Relocate Our Solar System
stellar engine
Guardians of the Apocalypse
Move the Sun, Save the Earth: The Plan to Relocate Our Solar System
This stellar engine could harness the power of the sun to drag our solar system throughout the galaxy, preventing a catastrophic collision.

This stellar engine could harness the power of the sun to drag our solar system throughout the galaxy, preventing a catastrophic collision.

The Future Explored
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
The Future Explored
Cooling the Planet With a Giant Solar Umbrella
Solar geoengineering would cool global temperatures — is it worth it?

Solar geoengineering would cool global temperatures — is it worth it?

Public Health
Microbe in Mosquito Guts Completely Blocks Malaria Parasite
Malaria Parasite
Public Health
Microbe in Mosquito Guts Completely Blocks Malaria Parasite
Scientists have discovered a microbe in the guts of mosquitoes that appears to prevent the most common malaria parasite from infecting the insects.

Scientists have discovered a microbe in the guts of mosquitoes that appears to prevent the most common malaria parasite from infecting the insects.

Public Health
Genetic Evidence Debunks Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories, Scientists Say
Could the coronavirus be man made?
Public Health
Genetic Evidence Debunks Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories, Scientists Say
A team of researchers analyzed the COVID-19 coronavirus. Their findings debunk the conspiracy theory that the virus was lab-made.

A team of researchers analyzed the COVID-19 coronavirus. Their findings debunk the conspiracy theory that the virus was lab-made.

Dispatches
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Dispatches
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Drugs couldn’t stop her infection — so she asked Ben Chan to get her a virus, instead.
By Kaitlin Ugolik

Drugs couldn’t stop her infection — so she asked Ben Chan to get her a virus, instead.

Dispatches
AI Will Make You Smarter
AI Will Make You Smarter
Dispatches
AI Will Make You Smarter
Artificial intelligence will multiply your own intelligence, in ways that will surprise you.
By Terrence Sejnowski

Artificial intelligence will multiply your own intelligence, in ways that will surprise you.

Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Watch Now
Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Jerral was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq and left paralyzed. Now he's partnering with researchers to regain his independence. »
Watch Now

Jerral was serving in Iraq, his tank was hit by a roadside bomb. The attack left him paralyzed and without his left arm. But rather than letting his injuries define him, Jerral is fighting back with the help of the world’s most advanced prosthetic arm. He’s working with a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins to test the arm that could help Jerral and many other wounded vets like him take back their independence.

Superhuman
Three Women Who Changed the Way We Think About Medicine
Three Women Who Changed the Way We Think About Medicine
Superhuman
Three Women Who Changed the Way We Think About Medicine
From newborn health to AIDS treatment to DNA research, these brilliant women paved the way for incredible advances...
By Mike Riggs

From newborn health to AIDS treatment to DNA research, these brilliant women paved the way for incredible advances in the field of medicine.