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Hose-and-windmill setup would help Arctic do what it does naturally: make ice.
Idea might be crazy, but doing nothing is "what’s really crazy," ASU prof says.
December 22, 2016

Interdisciplinary group works with students to find a way to make plan work in region where climate-change effects are severe

The idea started after a depressing climate conference in 2012: ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) professor Steve Desch walked away feeling that the only scientific solution anyone was proposing to combat climate change was to radically reduce CO2 emissions, a near impossibility in a world filled with people and their machines.

“We can’t put the world back the way it was,” Desch thought, “so how can we at least work on fixing part of the problem?” 

He started thinking about solutions that might work in the Arctic, where the effects of climate change are some of the most severe. In the Arctic, thawing of permafrost and melting sea ice has led to a positive feedback, an ever-increasing cause-and-effect loop, on Earth’s climate. So Desch started looking for ways to reverse the sea ice loss.

The idea he pursued, beautiful in its simplicity, is to build millions of windmill pumps to make more ice.

Desch, a theoretical astrophysicist, joined forces with SESE’s Christopher Groppi, a systems engineer, and Hilairy Hartnett, an oceanographer with SESE and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, to teach a course at ASU that would focus on this idea: a windmill pump on a buoy with a hose, a device that would artificially increase the thickness of ice in the Arctic. Together with their students, they essentially combined three interdisciplinary creative strengths to find a way to make their plan work.    

They called the innovative course “Geodesigning the Arctic,” and the class’s research and proposed solution is presented in a recently published article titled “Arctic Ice Management” in the American Geophysical Union’s journal Earth’s Future.

Ice in the Arctic is melting faster in the summer and not building enough in the winter. This represents a strong positive feedback on climate because while ice reflects 90 percent of sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90 percent of sunlight, so the less ice there is, the more heat the planet absorbs. In addition, when Arctic permafrost ground melts, it releases methane, amplifying the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere just like CO2. All told, we’re quickly running out of time to reverse this vicious cycle of cause and effect.

Leading climatologists estimate that we have fewer than 20 years to make serious changes, or this sequence of less Arctic ice in the winter and more melting during hotter summers will lead to the Arctic Ocean being completely ice-free in summer as soon as 2030, driving temperatures even higher throughout our planet.

Arctic Ice
Arctic sea-ice extent (area covered at least 15 percent by sea ice) in September 2007 (white area). The red curve denotes the 1981-2010 average. Sea-ice extent in 2016 was the second lowest ever recorded. Image courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center


“Ice-free summers are in our future,” Desch said. “We have to do something now, and we have to do it in the Arctic.”

Since human habits are unlikely to change so dramatically that this cycle can be reversed, the question to scientists now, argues this research team, is how to make more ice in the winter or keep it frozen in summer.

Scientists and students in the ASU class focused on the first half of the puzzle, building models and consulting observations to determine how ice freezes and thickens. They calculated that 1.4 meters of seawater pumped to the frigid surface during the long Arctic winter night lets it freeze more readily and produces an additional 1 meter of ice in a single winter. This would help the Arctic do what is already does naturally in the winter: make ice. 

This is where the windmill pump on a buoy with a hose takes center stage. If water in the Arctic could be pumped to the surface, it would freeze faster. The Arctic already provides a steady, renewable source of wind power; the windmill would give power to the pump, the buoy would keep the contraption afloat in summer, and the force of the water from the hose would help distribute the water around the windmill. 

Each windmill-powered pump could spread ice over about a 0.1-square-kilometer area in the Arctic. About 10 million windmills would be needed to cover a large enough area to be effective. At an estimated cost of $50,000 per windmill, implementation over 10 years would cost about $50 billion per year.

“The scale of climate change and associated problems is so large it paralyzes us into inaction,” Desch said. “But we can make real progress in the Arctic by putting people to work and using just a fraction of the industrial capacity that accidentally caused climate change in the first place.”

If the design works, the windmill-powered pump could effectively reverse the ice-loss trend and even potentially make more ice. And there’s an added benefit to humans in creating ice. If sea ice stays frozen for several years, its salt leaches out, leaving potable water. Polar explorers relied on this, and harvesting polar ice could help supply fresh water to cities and farms.

“Maybe trying to make more ice in the Arctic using windmills and pumps and hoses is a crazy idea,” Desch admitted, “but what’s really crazy is doing nothing while the Arctic melts.”

The next step the team proposes is to work with colleagues internationally to promote the idea of Artic ice management and apply these ideas to saving, and perhaps creating, more Arctic ice. They will then need to build prototypes of the windmill pump to see what would work in the real world. They also propose working on the second half of the puzzle, using other ice-saving ideas like marine cloud brightening, essentially making fog and blocking sunlight, to stop the ice from melting in the summer.

Most of all, they want the discussion to broaden beyond scientific circles, to include policy makers and other stakeholders in the Arctic.

“We hope to provoke discussion and action,” Desch said. “Whether we choose to be in or not, we’re in charge of the climate now, so let’s all do the best we can.”


Top photo: Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea. Image courtesy of NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager , School of Earth and Space Exploration


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ASU partners with Facebook for targeted innovation research

ASU partners with Facebook on project to improve communications worldwide.
ASU joins Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, others on large-scale project.
December 22, 2016

University among first wave of schools to join social media giant in large-scale push to improve communication worldwide

Arizona State University has become one of the first schools to partner with social media giant Facebook in a mission to use managed research — characterized by aggressive timelines and clear objectives — to improve communication worldwide.

Seventeen universities signed on to an agreement this week — among them Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins University — allowing Facebook to engage with individual scientists and labs on joint technology projects lasting weeks or days, instead of months.

The Sponsored Academic Research Agreement, or SARA, was created to help intellectually fuel the research done by the team Facebook dubs Building 8, a venture dedicated to developing new hardware products.

“Facebook is a mission-driven company, and our mission is to help connect people all over the world,” said Building 8 communications manager Ha Thai. “Over the next 10 years it means a focus on technology like (augmented reality), (virtual reality) and connectivity. There will be hardware that’s required to bring these breakthrough experiences to people. Building 8’s mandate is to develop and ship this new hardware.”

Managed research originated during World War II, when the government directed scientists to make breakthroughs on specific tasks, including radar and the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development arm of the Department of Defense, was created to give the United States the jump on scientific advances.

DARPA created the internet, drones and global positioning systems, among other inventions. Building 8 is led by Regina Dugan, a former DARPA head.

“DARPA is sort of a proven model,” Thai said. “Some of the largest inventions and breakthroughs have come out of DARPA, like drones, GPS, the internet, for example. Regina took that model with her to industry. … She is bringing that style of innovation to the work we do at Building 8.”

The company plans to invest hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars into the Building 8 team. Facebook adopted the managed research approach because of its track record of accomplishment.

“We’re pleased to be part of Facebook’s efforts to advance innovative technology,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “ASU is home to top research minds that will be able to contribute immensely to Facebook’s priority areas.”

Seventeen universities have signed the SARA. They include Caltech, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Rice, University of California-San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Northeastern, Princeton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Waterloo in Canada, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

“We are looking to work with the best research minds in the world, so this agreement is open to any university that wants to join,” Thai said. “The first universities to sign up so far have been fantastic.”

What Facebook plans to build is not known at this time, but solar-powered drones bringing internet access to remote areas, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are part of the company’s 10-year plan, announced by founder Mark Zuckerberg this week.

“In Building 8, we believe that both a product shipping team and access to the world’s best research minds are required for developing breakthrough products,” Thai said. “That’s why we’ve built a team of hardware experts. Now, the SARA makes it easier and faster for us to work with university researchers.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now