PHOTO: CONNOR MCSHEFFREY/UNSPLASH

The glaciers in the Canadian Rockies are gradually disappearing due to climate change and soot accumulation on the ice, but a new geoengineering approach can be a possible way to prevent the melting of the glaciers. 

John Pomeroy, professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, says glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are melting because of the accumulation of soot, due to wildfires, that darkens the glacial surface which increases solar radiation absorption by the glaciers.

Due to global warming, they don’t get enough snow during the wintertime, although places like B.C. are still getting enough snow to offset the impacts of climate change.

“Having lots of glaciers around, as we did in the past, drought-proofed the prairies to some degree. But we’re losing that, in fact we have already lost some of that. In the future where we would have minimal glacier coverage in the Canadian Rockies feeding the streams and that effect would be completely gone. So that reduces our security of our water supplies from the mountains,” he says. 

Though it doesn’t provide the same effects as the old ice would in terms of reflecting radiation back, the reflective material will help reflect some of the solar radiation and restore the ice. GRAPHIC: ARCTIC ICE PROJECT

Pomeroy and his team at the Canadian Rockies Hydrological Observatory measure different variables such as snowfall, solar radiation, and humidity, and use drones to assess snow depth, how rapidly it’s melting, and the change in glacier mass balance. 

“The glacier mass balance is sort of like your budget on your chequebook. So when it’s negative, you’re losing ice and it’s been largely negative since the mid-1970s and the glaciers are retreating very rapidly. We’ve measured downward ice melt rates of five and a half to six meters per year in the last couple of years, very, very high rates. And this is due to warmer summers, but also darker glacier surfaces.”

A researcher studying how to prevent the melting of sea ice in the Arctic might have a solution.

Leslie A. Field, an adjunct lecturer at Stanford University and chief technical officer of the Arctic Ice Project, and her team are working to develop a method to help preserve and prevent the melting by reflecting some of the solar radiation back by using a reflective layer of material on Arctic sea ice. The aim of the procedure is to try and restore the Arctic ice’s climate-stabilizing behaviour of reflecting sunlight. 

In collaboration with local residents, controlled tests were done on ponds in MN and AK. PHOTOS: ARCTIC ICE PROJECT

“The tests that we’ve made have been primarily on lake ice or ice in contained pools. And that’s showing very promising results,” says Leslie, who has not tried it on glaciers. “One of the reasons that we’re focusing on sea ice first is that we think we have the possibility for some leverage, for some non-linear leverage, meaning that if you treat a relatively small area in the right place, you could have an effect beyond that immediate treatment area by changing things a bit.” 

She says testing is of huge importance because it lets researchers know whether the material being used is the right fit or whether they have to look farther and develop something more. Small scale field tests were done in various locations in California, Alberta (near Edmonton), Minnesota, and Alaska. The field tests helped gain experience that led to improvements in the material and deployment techniques.

Field says that she wanted to do something safe that would be a big contribution to solving climate change. “My thought was simply can we put something on top of ice and snow and water and that can reflect a little bit more?” 

She said they started on sea ice as it could make a difference to reducing the feedback loop of losing Arctic ice, warming the ocean, losing more ice, losing more reflectivity, accelerating temperature, etc.

“You can find this from satellite imagery …climate experts in the world are saying that a couple of things have happened. We’ve lost almost all our multi-year ice,” she says. Additional increase in global warming is coming from losing this reflectivity of ice.

“You still grow ice back every winter. We’re still cold enough for that. But it’s first-year ice that isn’t very reflective yet. It isn’t very thick. It doesn’t have very many imperfections, so it doesn’t reflect very well. And so that’s this loss of reflectivity. I like to put it as, we’ve taken off the white T-shirt the Arctic had on, on a hot summer day, and now we’ve got a black T-shirt on, where we’re absorbing.”

“What we’re working to do is slow that down in fact, it looks like we could restore reflective Arctic ice by doing what we’re doing.”

The reflective material used is a hollow shell of silica based glass, which is hydrophilic so it doesn’t attract oil based pollutants. It has a high albedo, which means it reflects most of the light that hits it, and is less dense than water. The material, silica, is non-toxic and is one of the most prevalent materials one earth, and will be assessed by marine biologist partners to make sure there aren’t any problems. It has been tested by an environmental testing laboratory on some species of birds and fishes and has shown no ill effects. 

Field mentions that the process isn’t meant to be a long-term solution, but an action that impedes the rapid approach of global warming. 

“So what this is meant to do is be this Band-Aid, really this first aid, this delaying action that allows us to get our act together and decarbonize in the ways we need,” she says.

So far the material hasn’t been tested on snow and ice that can be found on glaciers. Field says that the material can be used on areas of glaciers that have an increased, rate of absorption due to soot. The material will help make the area brighter, which will decrease the absorption of sunlight by the glacial ice. 

Shawn Marshall, professor at University of Calgary and departmental science advisor at Environment and Climate Change Canada, says the idea could work on the glaciers but he’s worried about the material running off the slopes of a mountain. 

“I’m open to it if it helps us preserve the glaciers and if it’s not toxic environmentally and it’s not too much of an environmental impact to spread the material,” he says.

He said the method could work well on the Haig glacier in Alberta where the national cross country ski team trains every summer. He says that due to grooms they make, the snow and ice are churned which makes it a fresher surface that improves the glacial ice by increasing the reflectivity. This causes it to have brighter and whiter ice compared to the surrounding glaciers which results in more sunlight being reflected by the glacial ice and increasing its survivability. 

Field says that with enough resources, her team and she would like to begin field tests on mountains when everything is planned and the project begins its next steps.