One day in 2016, a British glaciologist named John Moore attended a meeting in Cambridge, England, that included a presentation about a glacier on Greenland’s west coast. Typically referred to by its Danish name, Jakobshavn, but also known by its Greenlandic moniker, Sermeq Kujalleq, the glacier functions as a kind of drain, situated on the edge of Greenland’s massive ice sheet, that moves 30 billion to 50 billion tons of icebergs off the island every year. These icebergs, some of them skyscraper-size, calve regularly from the glacier front, crash into a deep fiord and float west into Disko Bay. Then they drift out into the North Atlantic, break apart and melt. The intense activity here, as well its breathtaking location, have earned the area a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site and made it a powerful attraction for Greenland’s small but vibrant tourist trade…
…“Geoengineering” commonly refers to human interventions in Earth’s natural systems in order to reap societal benefits even in the face of unclear risks. Some geoengineering ideas, like crushing rocks and dispersing the dust to absorb CO2 from the air — a practice known as “enhanced weathering” — are already being tried. Others, like injecting particulates into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the Earth (much as a volcanic eruption might), have so far proved too contentious to field-test.
In general, geoengineering seeks to reduce the impacts of climate change and to buy us more time as we transition to a zero-carbon world. Such projects also confront advocates with extraordinary challenges of engineering and financing — as well as political, cultural and ethical obstacles. The glacial barrier proposed by Moore and Wolovick is a case in point. It is novel, expensive, complex, potentially risky and controversial. But as the pandemic receded, the two scientists turned their focus to determining if their idea could become more than a hypothetical.
About a year ago, I began talking with Moore about his progress. We first met in person in September, in Rovaniemi, Finland, where Moore works as a professor of glaciology at the University of Lapland. As we sat outside his building, he traced the evolution of his glacier-conservation idea. He was encouraged, he told me, by early philanthropic support for his research into an underwater barrier. (The support had come from a Scandinavian billionaire, he said, in addition to academic institutions.) And recent computer modeling, which he previewed for me, suggested that an underwater barrier could be beneficial in West Antarctica. “I think it’s superoptimistic as a result,” he said.
Moore thought the path ahead would take at least a decade, though, as he progressed to larger sites, starting deep in a Norway fiord, then moving on to Greenland. Then maybe he could begin in Antarctica. An installation near Thwaites — considering its bad winter weather and logistical complications — might take another decade. “No one has really said lately that it’s supercrazy,” he said, laughing. Still, some glaciologists had voiced strong opposition as well as skepticism. And Moore and a team of associates didn’t yet know whether native Greenlanders would find his plans acceptable, or whether the political treaty in Antarctica would allow for construction.
He was nevertheless certain that his project remained viable. “The usual argument against doing any kind of geoengineering is that we have to do mitigation, mitigation, mitigation — those are the three arrows in the quiver,” Moore said. But mitigating our carbon emissions might not do much to halt the collapse of some threatened glaciers. Why not do mitigation and intervention, Moore asked, to avoid catastrophe?
He had reached a point, he said, where he wanted to see if there were good reasons not to pursue his ideas. “Let’s try and find the red flag,” he said, meaning the risks that might follow from creating an underwater barrier. And if we can’t find them, he added, he was determined to move forward.
As we get closer to reaching the point where Earth’s temperatures are 1.5 degrees Celsius greater than they were in preindustrial times — a level we are likely to hit by the end of this decade — it seems increasingly clear that an age of geoengineering, both in prospect and in practice, has arrived. The resulting projects can often require complexity and sophistication. To disperse reflective particles to cool the Earth, for instance, may require manufacturing a fleet of specialized high-altitude aircraft. But geoengineering efforts can be low-tech too. Painting urban roofs white to cool buildings is one example; covering permafrost or glaciers with blankets to keep them cool is another. One afternoon Moore and I discussed whether fencing in the edges of Antarctic glaciers could catch snow and keep it from blowing out to sea, thereby building up drifts to thicken the ice.
David Keith, a former Harvard professor who has been a leading advocate of researching the potential risks and benefits of putting particulates into the upper atmosphere, recently began organizing the Climate Systems Engineering initiative at the University of Chicago; one priority is to systematically consider the practical engineering challenges of various climate interventions. Keith told me he has been excited by the global investments in clean energy over the past few years, which surpass $1 trillion, as well as by the increased efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere by means other than trees. (He is a founder of a company, Carbon Engineering, that is focused on direct air capture.) “It’s not like, will deployment happen?” Keith says, referring to certain kinds of geoengineering. “Deployment is happening.”
And yet, it’s largely happening on an ad hoc basis. No single entity organizes geoengineering research projects or evaluates potential risks and effects; nor is there a clear process by which governments or other entities decide whether they are sensible or safe or affordable. Instead, academics like Moore are usually left to push their ideas forward, independently, and hope they find funding and momentum. In Keith’s view, the Arctic barrier idea is promising (“the best one I’ve seen yet for glaciers”) but might require at least a decade of study to understand its true costs and benefits.