How Can Glass Help Us Mitigate Climate Change?

Ice911 researcher at Arctic test site

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This article is part of a series of Arctic ice updates contributed by Ice911.org.

The Arctic is in trouble. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Arctic Report Card, released in December 2018, shows we’ve lost 95 percent of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic over the past three decades. This report card also revealed that 2018 showed the second-warmest air temperatures, second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage in the Arctic, and the lowest ever recorded winter ice in the Bering Sea in recorded history. Why is this so alarming?


Historically, the Arctic has acted as the Earth’s global heat shield. Much like a white T-shirt on a hot summer’s day, the ice has helped keep the Arctic cool in the hot summer sun. By reflecting incoming 24-hours-per-day solar energy away from the Arctic, Arctic ice has helped keep the Earth cooler and its weather more stable than what we see today — and what we’ll be seeing more in the future.

This loss of ice and snow in the Arctic now accounts for more than one-quarter of global temperature rise. It also plays a major role in the U.S. drought and wildfires in California and worsening Nor’easter winter storms. Worldwide, loss of Arctic ice contributes to increasingly severe tropical storms, harsher winters in northern Europe, and rising seas. Restoring ice in the Arctic would slow down global warming and reduce species extinctions. This would buy society time to undertake, in parallel, the also-urgent work to switch economies to sustainable energy sources and reduce CO2 levels.

melting arctic ice

The loss of ice and snow in the Arctic accounts for more than one-quarter of global temperature rise. Image: Ice911

Why Is Bright Ice in the Arctic Important?

The Arctic reflects solar energy most effectively in areas that are covered by multi-year bright ice and/or snow. These areas achieve reflectivity levels of up to 80 percent or more. It’s hard to improve on snow’s reflectivity, but it doesn’t snow much in the Arctic. And snow falling on open ocean tends to melt.

Ice is important in itself and provides falling snow a place to accumulate, which helps with reflectivity. But younger ice is less reflective (30 percent is typical) than multi-year ice. It tends to be thinner and more transparent, and it melts more quickly in the summer. And open ocean absorbs most of the solar energy that hits its surface (95 percent is typical). It absorbs far more than it reflects, resulting in warming ocean temperatures.


Can we help the world and our future by halting and reversing this accelerating scenario? We believe we can.

How Can Reflective Glass Help?

A safe, relatively inexpensive material, Ice911‘s granular, reflective, hollow glass microspheres act like bright ice to reflect the most heat with the least material possible. When applied in very thin layers in strategic areas of the Arctic, the sand-like microspheres can make young ice, or even melted water that accumulates in ponds on ice, act more like bright reflective ice and snow.

projected summer ice in 2041 with and without Arctic Ice911 intervention

Expert climate modeling indicates the benefits of a strategic application of reflective sand (silica) in the Arctic. Image: Ice 911

Are These Glass Microspheres Safe?

You can think of a glass microsphere as a thin, hollow shell of mostly-silica (sand) surrounding a gas core, much like a balloon is a thin shell of rubber surrounding the air you put inside it.

Silica is the main ingredient of glass, and it’s pretty much everywhere on Earth. It’s also known as silicon dioxide. (Chemically, that’s SiO2.) That’s a natural compound made of two of the Earth’s most abundant materials: silicon (Si) and oxygen (O2). Silica is the main ingredient in over 95 percent of rocks on Earth. And there are more than 6 tera-tons (6 thousand billion tons) of silica in the ocean.


In the ocean, much of the silica is in the form of silicic acid. (Chemically, that’s 1 SiO2 combined with 2 H2O.) The Earth’s crust is 59 percent silica; a familiar form of this material is beach sand. It’s also found naturally in water, plants, and animals.

Our material will eventually become a miniscule part of the silica already in the ocean, safely joining the natural silica cycle on which so much of Earth’s plant and animal life depends.

Take a look at the material in this video from an HBO VICE special. Ice911 Founder Leslie Field, Ph.D., discusses how the reflective microspheres can help restore ice in the Arctic.

How Does It Work?

Our peer-reviewed and field-tested solution to slow the melt and restore Arctic ice: Spread a very thin layer of reflective glass microspheres on young, thin ice to make it last longer. Microspheres are used in many everyday applications. You likely have them in your medicines, personal care items, and as part of your home.


Climate modeling by our colleagues at Climformatics shows that by slowing the melt, we can restore ice over time and rebuild the Earth’s natural heat shield.

If we do nothing to save the ice, the small remaining percentage of the old, multi-year ice will melt completely very soon. We could experience an ice-free Arctic summer in 10 years or sooner. An ice-free Arctic would add greatly to climate risks we’re already experiencing: unparalleled wildfires, extreme storms, drought, and rising sea levels, as well as increasing — often deadly — temperatures in the hotter regions of the world.

This is one of the many approaches that, taken together, can address the huge challenges of our warming planet and changing climate conditions.

About the Author

Charlie Heck is a multimedia news editor and radio producer, and was co-host of the National Science Foundation’s Science 360 Super Science Show. She writes on other various STEM subjects and Ice911-related news.


Feature image courtesy of Ice911.

 

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