Among the many and varied challenges that humanity faces in its long-term, the melting of the poles is one of the most worrying. After all, around 40% of the world population lives in coastal regions, and a drastic rise in sea level, such as the one we are driving in a handful of years, would have alarming consequences. What can be done to stop the progressive mass loss of the Arctic and Antarctic glaciers? One option: build a wall.
The idea comes from a study published in The Cryosphere, a scientific journal focused on geology and signed by Michael Wolovick and John Moore, Princeton University and Beijing. In the work, both propose to raise an enormous artificial lamina, formed by rocks and several sediments, able to exert of “artificial barrier” before the warm submarine currents that thaw the base of the glaciers. Its decomposition, in this way, would slow down.
The research focuses on the Thwaites glacier, one of the largest in Antarctica and responsible for 4% of global melting.
In its melting process, glaciers such as the Thwaites vomit rivers of icy underwater water from their gigantic frozen platforms. The cold water rises to the ocean surface, allowing warmer currents to take their place and erode the base of the glaciers. It is a phenomenon studied and well known to scientists and helps to trigger the thaw rates of the Arctic and Antarctic.
A hypothetical wall like the one posed by Wolovick and Moore could stop the access of the hot waters to the submarine bed of the glacier, limiting its impact to the maximum. The study defines this idea as “the most effective method” to stop the thaw.
No. Wolovick and Moore acknowledge the near technical impossibility of executing project size (not to mention political unviability). They include other more modest and similar proposals that would reduce the melting process to 70%. The study is purely theoretical, similar to other recent ones that, for the Arctic case, have considered filling the ocean with pumps driven by windmills capable of freezing their surface waters. They are unrealizable solutions, but their mere hypothesis defines well the catastrophic scenario to which we are heading.
Is it so serious?
Yes. Antarctica is melting today three times faster than 25 years ago, and the forecasts are not optimistic. According to NASA, the frozen continent loses around 127 gigatons (a measure of extraordinary volume equivalent to 1,000 million tons) per year. It’s a wild number, equivalent to some 12,000 million elephants annually poured into the ocean in the form of water. Greenland, meanwhile, loses 286 gigatons a year.
Both contribute net growth to the oceans. In the short term the magnitudes do not seem so relevant: in the end, water has only risen 178 millimetres during the last hundred years. But the projections, as we illustrated at the time, are terrifying: in the worst case (between five and thirteen meters of the flood) entire regions such as northern Europe, Bangladesh or Florida could be under water. And in the day to day is already observable.