The Ice 911 Project: Geoengineering Experiment Briefing

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Locations: Near Barrow, Alaska; the Beaufort Gyre (an ocean current flowing past Nunavut and Alaska); and Fram Straight (between Greenland and Svalbard)

Budget: $97,630 (based on 2015 crowdfunder1, which raised $3,103 from 24 donors, but full implementation would cost millions)

Summary:

The Ice 911 project2 proposes to scatter millions of tiny glass bubbles over arctic ice, which would reflect sunlight, slowing the melting process in the summer months. The project’s proponents are pitching the project as a form of “soft geoengineering”, which they claim is less damaging and more reversible than other techniques. Their initial plan is to use their glass bubbles to prevent strategic areas of ice from melting, which could block larger ice sheets in the Arctic Ocean from floating south (where they would melt faster).

Experiments are deploying millions of tiny glass spcheres to reflect sunlight and delay melting of ice.

The effects of a large-scale geoengineering experiment like Ice 911 are difficult to determine. Just like other solar radiation management experiments, Ice 911 would develop infrastructure and technology that aim to change global weather patterns. Reflecting sunlight back into space on a massive scale in the Arctic could have unanticipated changes on precipitation, temperature and humidity all over the globe.
In addition to potentially catastrophic unanticipated effects, anticipated effects could be the most dangerous: the ability to change weather on other parts of the planet could become a powerful weapon wielded by governments or private actors.

Key Players:

Project leader Leslie Field-Barth is an electrical engineer and researcher who has worked for Chevron and various Silicon Valley firms, and currently runs a nanotechnology consultancy. She also teaches at Stanford.

Key dates:

According to the project, Ice 911 has already conducted experiments that covered 17,500 square metres of ice with their glass spheres in 2017 in Alaska.

In 2018, the Ice 911 project intends to cover .25 km of ice with its materials. In 2019, their stated plan is to scale that up by 20x on ice sheets in the Beaufort Gyre or Fram Strait.

Potential Impacts:

Ice 911’s goal is to spread millions of hollow glass beads the size of grains of sand over ice in order to reflect sunlight and slow the melting of ice, blocking the southward flow of larger bodies of ice and preventing those from melting as well. This could affect weather patterns locally and globally, habitat and animal migration in the Arctic, as well as other unanticipated effects,

While increasing the albedo of ice might seem more innocuous than, for example, spraying thousands of tonnes of sulphites into the stratosphere, it could have similar effects on weather patterns if implemented on a large enough scale to have an impact on the climate. Computer models show that “albedo enhancement” and “solar radiation management” (SRM) projects – especially coupled with a continued increase in atmospheric CO2 – could have profound effects on rainfall patterns in vulnerable regions like the Sahel and the Amazon basin, leading to droughts that could affect millions of people and threaten biodiversity.

To the extent that Ice 911 is succesful at changing global temperatures, it can become a tool of geopolitical power, with powerful nations claiming that they’re modifying global weather patterns for the good of the planet while they may be putting at risk the sources of food and water for many million peoples in Asia and Africa.

As such, the same concerns about weaponization that have been raised about other SRM projects apply. Once Ice 911 has been implemented on a large scale, data can be collected about effects on global weather patterns.

Reflecting sunlight back into space on a scale big enough to modify global temperatures would have massive effects on weather patterns, which could lead to weaponization of geoengineering. Computer models suggest that Solar Radiation Management methods like cloud brightening could lead to drought in the Sahel region of Africa or South America. In the likely scenario that SRM creates winners and losers in terms of rainfall or other weather factors, the techniques would inevitably become a tool of geopolitics.

To the extent that Ice 911 is succesful at changing global temperatures, it can become a tool of geopolitical power, with powerful nations claiming that they’re modifying global weather patterns for the good of the planet while they may be putting at risk the sources of food and water for many million peoples in Asia and Africa.

In the Arctic, rapid changes to the pattern of ice floes could impact animal migration as well as local weather patterns. Climate change is already having profound effects in the Arctic, but that doesn’t mean major changes to the circulation of ice and ocean currents would be an improvement. Without significant study, major unanticipated negative impacts could result, affecting conditions for hunting, fishing and trapping in nearby communities, animal habitat, plant growth, and changes to quality of life in settled areas. Indeed, it’s possible that major unanticipated effects could negate the “positive” effects anticipated by the authors of Ice 911.

Another source of unanticipated effects could be the glass bubbles themselves. Ice 911 compares its tiny spheres to sand and claims they are harmless to ingest, but there are key differences: hollow sphere may float, creating unanticipated changes in ocean temperature or photosynthesis of ocean life downcurrent; the highly reflective nature could affect animal behaviors, cause disorientation or be mistaken for food sources; and the spheres may have different effects on soil conditions, plant life or organisms that eat them, or further up in the food chain.

Regulatory Status:

The UN Convention on Biodiversity has passed a moratorium on ocean fertilization (2008) and on geoengineering (2010) that cover experiments like this. However, the US is not a party to the CBD. The UN Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) prohibits military use of weather modification technology globally.

The London Convention (the International Maritime Organization body that oversees dumping of wastes at sea) has also banned all ocean-based geongineering.

Under US Federal law (National Weather Modification Policy Act of 1976), any modification of the weather is required to be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the results of research must be made public.

A polar bear on an ice floe in the Fram Straight. Covering ice with millions of tiny glass spheres could have many unanticipated effects on the local food chain, from sea life to whales, bears and Indigenous Inuit communities who depend on hunting. Photo: Creative Commons/Fruchtzwerg’s World

The area around Ukpeaġvik (also known as Barrow) where Ice 911’s 2017 experiment was staged, is owned by the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, whose shareholders are people of Iñupiat descent.
The Beaufort Gyre covers the northernmost part of the Arctic Ocean on the Canadian side, and comes into contact with the area of the Nunavut Land Claim. The Land Claim, signed in 1993, grants regional Inuit organization rights to water, and compensation if the “quality, quantity or flow” of water they depend on is affected by a “project or activity”.

The Fram Straight is located between autonomous Danish territory of Greenland and the Norwegian territory of Svalbard. Both countries are signatories to the UN Convention on Biodiversity.

Action required:

The Ice911 project has been developed under the radar of current applicable regulations, and no critical assessment of its impacts has been made. While the existence and immediate impacts of the project are concern enough, the cumulative and future impacts of a scaled up version require the immediate attention of regulatory bodies and civil society organizations.

Sources:

1. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice911-preserve-arctic-ice-to-slow-climate-change#/

2. http://stormquell.org/

Briefing prepared by ETC Group. etc@etcgroup.org

ETC’s Irreverent Review of 2015… and (possibly) Irrelevant Preview of 2016

etc_kitty_kitty_cartoonDownload the full review here.

The Year that Ended Dangerously

If El Niño weren’t enough, the extraordinary winds that struck Yemen and Mexico’s Pacific Coast were matched by record-breaking forest fires in the Indonesian archipelago, droughts, torrential rains and floods from Australia to the British Isles and heat-waves on the east coast of North America (in winter). Much of this was El Niño, of course, but some of it was climate change – and all of it wound up in Paris with calls for geoengineering …2015 was the year that ended dangerously.

Editorial

Realpolitik in Paris. ETC Group feels like the Grinch Group that stole Christmas when we complain about Paris. Yes, there was a heightened level of awareness and commitment palpable among governments and civil society and, yes, governments are committed to reporting back every five years creating a space in which many believe it will be self-evident that they need to up their game and commit to bigger and faster GHG cutbacks. As importantly, 2015 was the year in which CSO Climate Change Campaigners worked together better than ever before and often supported one another even when we didn’t entirely agree with the tactics. From the World Social Forum in Tunis in March on through the preparatory sessions in Paris and Bonn and then right through Paris again at COP21, folks were trying to understand each other’s positions, agreeing on many points even though not everybody spoke out. Sadly, some CSOs and online clicktavism brands felt they owed their followers a victory and resolved to celebrate regardless of reality. False optimism is still lying to your friends – a very high-risk tactic. For industrialized countries at least, climate change continues to be a distant disaster and politicians are still punting the ball down the road an election or two. The realpolitik defense – that Paris was the best it could be – needs a reality check.

Realpolitik is only admirable if it creates the political space for an eventual victory. In Paris, we lost time – and ground – that we can’t recover.

How so? Almost nobody that was in Paris believes we can keep temperatures in 2100 below 2°C much less 1.5°C. Most everybody recognizes that we will blow past our GHG quota for the 21st century by around 2036 and everything after that will push us somewhere north of 3°C.1 To justify the difference between government promises on reductions and reality, politicians accepted the myth offered by the fossil fuel industry and other major manufacturers that somewhere around midcentury they will invent geoengineering technologies that can capture CO2 at the smokestack or the wellhead. Most scientists and many politicians know this is ridiculous. It’s like sending our children home on a school bus that has to cross a chasm but the bridge hasn’t been built yet and the bus has brakes tested by Volkswagen. When politicians realize they can’t suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere they will default to another form of geoengineering – Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – another mythical techno-fix that can (wrongly) appear cheap, easy, and can be controlled by a single country or a “coalition of the willing” usurping the planetary thermostat for themselves.

Leading into – and out of – Paris, the call for geoengineering is calamitous and growing as evidenced by 9 books and 1100 news stories on geoengineering in 2015 alone. Realpolitik, again, will suggest that we have no choice. But the reality in Paris is that industry bought itself the time it needs to protect its trillions of dollars of assets and politicians will slip past the next election unfettered by climate commitments. Despite everybody’s best intentions, the illusion of geoengineering is letting industry off the hook and when the time comes to deploy solar radiation management, the people in charge will not be the poor and marginalized betrayed by their governments in Paris. Paris was a tragic failure. Realpolitik is what politicians do when they don’t do courage.

To read the full review, please download the pdf here.

Climate Crisis: Radical Action or a New Battlefront in the War on Nature?

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

by  Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker

Will declaring a ‘climate emergency’ help to finally prompt radical action to address climate change?  A growing number of campaigners as well as scientists think so and hope that a major wakeup call about unfolding climate disasters will spur governments and people into action.

>UPDATE: Since the article was published by Common Dreams, we have seen emails from Ken Caldeira on a listserve stating that he had not given AMEG permission to list him as an advisor or member on their website and that he is not an advisor, member or supporter of this particular group. >

Whether a lack of scary-enough facts about climate change has been holding back real action is questionable.  After all, it requires a fair amount of psychological denial to not be alarmed by the escalating heat waves, droughts, floods and destructive mega storms.

Studies about psychological responses to climate change suggest that messages built on fear can cause people to feel disempowered and less likely to take action at all.  Still, constantly playing down the scale of the unfolding destruction of climate and other planetary life support systems so as not to be ‘alarmist’ seems somewhat disempowering to me.  Personally, we much prefer to hear climate scientist James Hansen speak of a ‘planetary emergency’ (in view of  last year’s record low Arctic sea ice cover) than to read excessively cautious comments about uncertainties and the need for more research before concluding what seems obvious, for example that Arctic sea ice is in rapid meltdown and that extreme weather events are already far worse and more frequent than scientists had predicted.

Yet while the language of ‘climate emergency’ may or may not spur more people to action, the crucial question is exactly what type of action is being advocated.  James Hansen’s conclusion: “If we burn all the fossil fuels, we create certain disaster” should be beyond dispute.  Action on climate change will be futile unless fossil fuels are left underground.

Unlike James Hansen, some academics and campaigners are calling for a very different type of ‘radical action’ in response to the climate emergency.  Amongst them is the small but vociferous Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG).  AMEG does not mince words about the seriousness of the crisis: “Abrupt climate change is upon us. Farmers are in despair. Food prices will go through the roof. The government’s climate change policy is in tatters. The government should have acted years ago. Now it may be too late.”

The abrupt climate change scenario put forward by AMEG is, briefly, as follows: The rate of warming is greatest in the Arctic and the rate at which Arctic sea ice has been melting is accelerating.  The loss of sea ice triggers different impacts which in turn make Arctic meltdown, global warming and extreme weather across the Northern Hemisphere even worse.  One of those effects is the release of methane trapped in permafrost, Arctic peat and under the Arctic Ocean.  This could release so much methane at once that it would greatly increase the rate of global warming and lead to “unstoppable runaway warming”.

The first part of this analysis should be beyond dispute.  However, the prediction of an imminent abrupt and catastrophic methane release from the Arctic is much less widely accepted amongst climate scientists, many of whom predict a slower release, over thousands of years – one which will worsen climate change in the long run but (importantly) not surpass the impacts of our own CO2 emissions.

One of the scientists challenging AMEG’s predictions is methane expert, Dr. David Archer who stresses: The worst case scenario is “what CO2 will do, under business-as-usual, not in a wild blow-the-doors-off unpleasant surprise, but just in the absence of any pleasant surprises (like emission controls).”

Is he right? We have no idea how much of the methane in the Arctic will end up the atmosphere by when.  Some recent climate change impacts and findings have turned out to be much worse than what scientists had previously predicted. For example, a recent New Scientist article observed: “We knew global warming was going to make the weather more extreme. But it’s becoming even more extreme than anyone predicted.”

But the argument regarding AMEG’s claims is not just a speculative argument about what might happen in future.  It is also – and primarily – an argument about how we think about climate change and what we want to do about it.  In this respect, we unequivocally agree with Archer’s view:  Business-as-usual will guarantee the worst possible climate disaster.  Arguing about just how bad that worst-case scenario might be seems futile when we should be doing whatever we can to stop greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. fossil fuel burning as well as ecosystem destruction.  This, however, is very different from how AMEG views the climate disaster.

What AMEG most fears is not what humans are doing – it’s the (methane) monsters lurking in nature. Preserving most life on earth, in their view, thus requires nature to be better controlled and its monsters to be tamed. As AMEG’s Strategic Plan puts it, the ‘common enemy’ that’s to be fought, the underlying cause of abrupt climate change isn’t us, it isn’t the fossil fuel economy – it’s the ‘vicious cycle of Arctic Warming and sea ice retreat”.

They demand “something akin to a war room” and the war they want governments to fight is a war against nature – and specifically a war against the way in which nature responds when humans drastically alter the planet’s atmosphere by increasing its greenhouse gases.  The tools for fighting this war that they suggest we use, are a range of geoengineering strategies: Large amounts of sulphur aerosols which they want pumped into the lower stratosphere  starting as soon as March/April 2014, the development of new reflective particles to be pumped into the stratosphere in future, marine cloud brightening, chemicals to destroy cirrus clouds, marine geoengineering, weather modification, and more.

Changing our own society and economy is ancillary to this quest.  Here are the changes which AMEG’s demands in relation to our energy and transport sectors: Postpone drilling in the Arctic, reintroduce a ban on polar flights, relax requirements to clean up ‘bunker fuels’ burnt in ships (because sulphur aerosols have a short-term cooling effect), scrub black carbon but not sulphur dioxide from coal power stations – and that’s it.  Burning more coal and diesel is fine, in their view, as long as we emit lots of sulphur dioxide with it.  Never mind the illnesses and acid rain caused by sulphur dioxide.  Indeed, AMEG members are even, bizarrely, promoting Arctic methane hydrate mining for energy. One of the most widely cited AMEG members, British oceanographer Peter Wadhams, has been criticised by Greenpeace after praising Shell’s credentials for ‘safely’ drilling in the Arctic in front of a Parliamentary Committee.

Not all AMEG members appear this unconcerned about ongoing fossil fuel emissions and some clearly do want to see real emissions reductions – in addition to geo-engineering.  AMEG is a very mixed group: Some supporters clearly have no financial interests in geoengineering and have joined AMEG purely out of the conviction that AMEG has the most credible answer to climate change.  Some are academics who have gained a much greater public profile thanks to AMEG’s campaign – such as Peter Wadhams.  And some have major financial interests in geoengineering – including Ken Caldeira.  Caldeira, together with David Keith (not listed on AMEG’s website) has received over $4.6 million from Bill Gates’ personal funds, around half of it for personal research on geoengineering, the other half to fund ‘research’ by other geoengineering advocates.  He is also listed as an inventor on a patent for a geoengineering device called ‘StratoShield’, held by Intellectual Ventures, a company linked to Gates.

All of them, however, are united in their faith that geoengineering can work and that humans can avert an even greater climate disaster by manipulating the planet’s atmosphere and biosphere.  They do not appear concerned about what unilateral action taken by a government to deliberately manipulate planetary systems might mean for democracy and the rights of most of the world’s population.  This is perhaps because they are convinced that geoengineering is the only way of keeping the planet habitable (at least for most humans).  But this conviction is not derived from scientific knowledge – it is based on unwavering faith in human ability to master and control nature through engineering and technology.

The possibility that their proposals could possibly backfire and end up making climate change even worse, even faster has, it seems, not occurred to AMEG.  Yet what the science confirms is that the full impacts of geoengineering on planetary and climate systems are by their nature unpredictable and that they might well render the climate yet more unstable.  In a recent joint briefing by Biofuelwatch and Econexus, we summarised some of the highest risks of the types of geoengineering promoted by AMEG: Destruction of the ozone layer,  acid rain, possible virtually instant and massive disruption of rainfall patterns, especially in the tropics and subtropics (which could mean a failure of the African and Asian monsoon), vegetation die-back which would release yet more carbon – and those are just some of the known risks.

If we want to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we clearly need radical action – but that radical action must be aimed at stopping the burning fossil fuels and reversing the destruction of ecosystems (including soils). The very last thing we and the planet need is yet another “war room” and a new battle-front in the war against nature.

Rachel Smolker is a codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Energy Justice Network.

Almuth Ernsting is co-director of Biofuels Watch 

Article originally from Common Dreams.