Skip to content
Arctic Circle

Restoring Arctic Ice: A New Way to Stabilize the Climate

By Leslie Field, Ph.D, Founder and CTO Arctic Ice Project and Stanford Adjunct Lecturer & Anthony Strawa, Ph.D.,

The Arctic holds incredible beauty and difficult challenges. Historically it has played a vital role in maintaining stability for the Earth’s climate systems – even those far-removed from the Arctic itself. Ice in the Arctic is of central importance to the world, and is a dominant feature in the environment of its indigenous peoples, and their cultures and way of life; as well as the Arctic’s beautiful and unique environment, ecosystem, and resident non-human species.

In recent decades, the Arctic has warmed two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet – a phenomenon called Arctic Amplification. As the Arctic has warmed, 95% of the thickest, oldest, most reflective Arctic ice has melted, at an increasing pace in a positive feedback loop. Ice still grows in the Arctic winter, but the summer ice melt is destroying most of the thick, highly reflective multiyear ice. The new ice is thin, and much less reflective, which allows most of the incoming summer sunlight to be absorbed by the ocean further warming it, and leading to further melting. Many scientists believe that this positive feedback has led to Arctic warming becoming not only a consequence, but also a driver of climate change, and responsible for a significant fraction of global warming.

Below is an analysis of satellite data by NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). It shows that the 2020 minimum extent measured 3.74 million square kilometers. That is 2.48 square kilometers below the 1981-2010 average of yearly minimum extents, and 2020 is only the second time on record that the minimum extent has fallen below 4 million square kilometers.

Arctic warming and ice loss is an urgent problem that will affect every living being on Earth. If we do not take effective action on this front within a very short time, the oceans will continue to warm and the Arctic will experience summers with no sea ice, possibly by 2030. In addition, Greenland’s melt will continue to accelerate, raising sea levels worldwide so that millions or even billions will become refugees; coastal infrastructures will be damaged and destroyed; and more and more species will be driven to extinction.

The pace of Arctic warming and ice melt make it unlikely that we can fulfill the Paris Accords goal to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and it is unlikely that humanity can meet all, or perhaps any, of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To meet the Paris Accord’s goal, the world will not only need to dramatically cut its greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions but also develop and employ ways to sequester GHGs from the atmosphere. None of the technology required to accomplish this mitigation and sequestration is sufficiently mature to accomplish these tasks. There is also the threat that loss of Arctic sea ice is moving toward a tipping point that may lead to the emission of a tremendous amount of methane (with 20 times the warming potential of CO2) from tundra, shallow ice shelves, and the ocean floor that can cause catastrophic changes across the globe.

As the Arctic has warmed, 95% of the thickest, oldest, most reflective Arctic ice has melted, at an increasing pace in a positive feedback loop.

Already Arctic warming is threatening much of its infrastructure. About 70% of the Arctic infrastructure is built on permafrost which is melting. In Alaska alone two indigenous communities were forced to relocate because of sea level rise, erosion, and melting permafrost; and another 12 communities are in danger. A further example of the impact of Arctic warming is the recent oil spill in Norilsk, Russia which sent 150,000 barrels of oil toward the Arctic Ocean because of weakened infrastructure due to melting permafrost. Continued Arctic warming could lead to similar events in the future.

The Arctic has been acknowledged as “ground zero” of climate change. The changes seen in the Arctic are already felt worldwide. Loss of Arctic ice is contributing to changing weather patterns globally and in the Northern Hemisphere in particular. Extreme weather events such as heavy rain and flooding in mid-Atlantic states and droughts and wildfires in the western states have been linked to Arctic Amplification. Japan, Scandinavia, and much of Europe had persistent heat waves. These heat waves have led to wildfires in Greece. Evaluating only the cost of climate-related disasters, it is estimated that in just a recent two- year period, 2016 through 2018, such disasters cost the world $650 billion. Cost estimates for climate change-related disasters and associated infrastructure, agricultural, economic and human health impacts by 2040 are staggering. In just the next two decades, these costs are estimated to be $54 trillion world-wide.

While this accelerating ice melt threatens our future, short-term economic considerations are leading some to relish the thought of increased access to Arctic resources such as minerals, oil and gas; as well as additional shipping routes and military deployment options. Given the threats that warming due to fossil fuel emissions pose, the world needs to ask if it is wise to continue to extract oil from new sources in the Arctic when we need to accelerate our energy structure away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable energy sources.

Rather than accept Arctic ice loss as a lost cause and suffer the tragic consequences outlined above, it is time instead to thoroughly evaluate and work to urgently implement, the most beneficial, safe, practical, and effective solutions to restore Arctic ice.

The Arctic Ice Project has developed one such solution, and has brought it to a Technology Readiness Level of 3, meaning that the main features have undergone successful proofs of concept, including successful initial demonstrations of the effectiveness, practicality, and safety of the approach; and initial expert climate modeling has demonstrated the potential impacts of a proposed at-scale implementation over a strategically chosen area of the Arctic.

The method is straightforward – apply very small amounts of a benign material to thin ice in a small but strategic-for-climate region of the Arctic. This will instantly make the treated ice more reflective, slowing its further melting, thereby reducing the warming of the underlying ocean, and slowing global temperature rise and risks to the world’s climate.

Below is an illustration of how the Arctic Ice Project solution boosts the reflectivity of young ice with a thin coating of safe material – and has the potential to rebuild multi-year bright reflective sea ice, boosting Arctic reflectivity, to slow global temperature rise.

Various materials have been tested for safety and effectiveness, in the lab and in small contained tests in the field, and the most favorable so far are Hollow Glass Microspheres (HGMs), a common industrial product made of silica-glass, which is, in testing to date, harmless to land and marine life, and which does not attract oil-based pollutants. There is more testing to be done before implementation, but the results have been positive so far.

Climate modeling can be used to determine the potential effectiveness of this approach at scale. Our first focus has been on the sea ice in climate-strategic areas, as it seems to have the greatest chance for a leveraged benefit due to the potential for currents in the ocean and atmosphere to amplify the beneficial effects. Preliminary modeling shows that treating roughly 1% of Arctic area is enough to make a significant difference in overall reflectivity, and sea ice retention, extending beyond the immediate treatment area.

In short, the Arctic Ice Project conducts ground-breaking basic and applied research, modeling and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of a method to locally increase Arctic sea ice reflectivity, area and thickness. We also collaborate with experts on the needed frameworks for policy, governance and funding to evaluate which climate interventional approaches should be implemented, in time, in the best interests of humanity. With Climformatics, we have a “Nature Communications” paper in review focused on the modeled predictions of an impactful proposal to treat a very limited (1%) area of the Arctic for a large potential benefit. The treatment increases reflectivity and ice thickness in the treatment area, and also extending beyond the direct treatment area, to decrease heating.

In addition, we continue to think about the important challenges and impacts of the accelerating melt of land ice. The massive ice sheet in Greenland is melting rapidly, with the potential to render uninhabitable many of the coastal areas that much of humanity currently calls home. The Himalayas are melting as well – with the potential to affect the stability of the drinking water supply for hundreds of millions of people. We are considering whether one or both of these urgent problems might also benefit from a reflectivity-boosting approach similar to the one we are developing for sea ice. Given support and permissions, work on land ice could be undertaken as well. Accordingly, we, with Dr. Soumitra Das, the Co-founder and President of the Healthy Climate Initiative, propose a Symposium on the Greenland and Himalayan ice melt challenges. Dr. Das has started to recruit impactful partners for such an initial discussion.

The Arctic Ice Project conducts ground-breaking basic and applied research, modeling and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of a method to locally increase Arctic sea ice reflectivity, area and thickness.

There is still much to be done to ensure that the Arctic Ice Project’s proposed solution is safe and effective – wherever possible through co-development and collaboration with those who live in the Arctic, and additional polar experts who share the relevant expertise and care for the environment and the future. Upcoming work includes further tests on safety, including work with expert marine biologists; further field tests in varying conditions and in (contained) seawater pools, further climate modeling, and further work on deployment methods for the materials.

We invite collaborations from experts in all these areas, as well as in policy and governance frameworks to complete the work in time to make a difference in climate, giving the world up to 15 years of much-needed time to complete the long-term solution of implementing sustainable energy and carbon sequestration solutions at scale.

Clearly, the frameworks for regional, national and international policies, governance, funding and monitoring the results of climate interventional solutions must be developed in parallel with the technical work, so that whatever is chosen for implementation at scale is truly in the best interests of humanity, including what is best for the ecosystems and species that form the web of life that all who live on Earth depend upon. We propose that some combination of interested parties such as Arctic Circle, the Arctic Council, the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, and the governments of Greenland, India and Iceland take leadership roles in supporting evaluation of the efficacy and safety of Arctic ice restoration approaches, and implementation of the approaches found to be most beneficial.

No. 4/2021, 9 March 2021

Corresponding Author:

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Leslie Field

Leslie Field, Ph.D., Founder and CTO Arctic Ice Project and Stanford Adjunct Lecturer

Dr. Leslie Field is the Founder and CTO of Arctic Ice Project, an organisation focused on preserving and restoring reflective ice in the Arctic. Restoring Arctic ice can be a key lever in mitigating climate change devastation. Dr. Field is an inventor (with 54 issued patents) and an entrepreneur. She has worked in Research and Development at Chevron Research, helping to get the lead out of gasoline, and at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories as the Project Leader on MicroElectroMechanical Systems. She has founded and run two successful engineering consulting companies.

Leslie is also a Lecturer at Stanford University, where she teaches an annual seminar class in "Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Climate Change", and she was the Founding Director of the Center for Climate Restoration's Polar Restoration Action Group. Leslie earned her B.S. and M.S. in Chemical Engineering from MIT, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from UC Berkeley.

Anthony Strawa