Not even massive geoengineering projects will stop the seas’ relentless rise.

22/9/2010 New Scientist Maybe it’s time we found somewhere to put all that excess water.FOR some, the end may come slowly, as the seas creep a little higher each year. That was the fate of the ancient cities of Herakleion and Eastern Canopus, which took centuries to be swallowed up. Elsewhere, the land may be eroded by waves and swept away by currents, as happened to the medieval English port of Dunwich. Or disaster could strike almost overnight, when a storm joins forces with the tides to create a surge that overwhelms flood defences, leaving the survivors wondering if there is any point in rebuilding.

As the world gets warmer, sea levels are rising. It has been happening at a snail’s pace so far, but as it speeds up more and more low-lying coastal land will be lost. At risk are many of the world’s cities and huge areas of fertile farmland. The sea is set to rise a metre or more by the end of this century, swamping much vital intrastructure and displacing hundreds of millions of people (New Scientist, 1 July 2009, p 28). And that’s just the start. “Unless there is a rapid and dramatic about-face in emissions - which no one expects - the next century will be far worse than this century,” says glaciologist Bob Bindshadler of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Throwing trillions of dollars at the problem could probably save big cities such as New York, London and Shanghai, but the task of defending all low-lying coastal areas and islands seems hopeless. Or is it? What if, instead of fighting a rearguard action against the encroaching oceans, we stopped sea levels rising at all? Could we find a way to slow the accelerating glaciers, drain seas into deserts or add more ice to the great ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica?

These ideas might sound Bond-villain crazy but we have got ourselves into such a bad situation that maybe we should start to consider them. If we carry on as we are, sea levels will rise for millennia, probably by well over 10 metres. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions would slow the rise and ensure it peaks sooner and at a lower level, but the longer we prevaricate, the bigger the rise we will be committed to. Even if “conventional” geoengineering schemes for cooling the planet were put in place and worked as planned, they would have little effect on sea level over the next century unless combined with drastic emissions cuts.

In short, if coastal dwellers don’t want their children and grandchildren to have to abandon land to the sea, now is the time to start coming up with Plan C. So New Scientist set out in search of the handful of researchers who have begun to think about specific ways to hold back the waters, or are at least prepared to talk about the feasibility of such ideas.

One of the reasons why the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antartica are already shrinking is that the ice is draining off the land faster. Ice floating on the surrounding seas usually acts as a brake, holding back glaciers on land, so as this ice is lost the glaciers flow faster. The acceleration of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland is thought to be the result of warm currents melting the floating tongue of the glacier. Other outlet glaciers are being attacked in a similar way.

Mike MacCracken of the Climate Institute in Washington DC is one of those starting to think that we shouldn’t just sit back and let warm currents melt ice shelves. “Is there some way of doing something to stop that flow, or cool the water?” he asks.

Last year, physicist Russel Seitz at Harvard University suggested that the planet could be cooled by using fleets of customised boats to generate swarms of tiny bubbles. This would whiten the surface of the oceans and so reflect more sunlight. MacCracken says the bubbles might be better deployed in a more focused way, to cool the currents that are undermining the Jakobshavn glacier and others like it. A couple of degrees of chill would take this water down to freezing point, rendering it harmless. “At least that would slow the pace of change,” MacCracken says.

What about a more direct approach: building a physical barrier to halt a glacier’s flow into the sea by brute force? Bindshadler thinks that is a non-starter. “The ice discharge has many sources, mostly remote and in environments where barriers are not likely to work,” he says. “Taking just the one example I know best, the Pine Island glacier in Antarctica drains into an ice shelf that at its front is 25 kilometres across and 500 metres thick, and moves at over 10 metres per day. The seabed there is 1000 metres down and is made of sediment hundreds of metres thick and the consistency of toothpaste.” Not your ideal building site.

A slightly more subtle scheme to rein in the glaciers was proposed more than 20 years ago by Douglas MacAyeal of the University of Chicago. His idea is to fight ice with ice. The big outlet glaciers feed into giant floating shelves of ice, which break off into icebergs at their outer edges. MacAyeal suggested pumping water up from beneath the ice and depositing it on the upper surface, where it would freeze to form a thick ridge, weighing down the floating ice shelf. Add enough ice in this way, and the bottom of the ice shelf would eventually be forced down onto the seabed. Friction with the seabed would slow down the shelf’s movement, which in turn would hold back the glaciers feeding into it. It would be like tightening a colossal valve.

“I think it’s quite an inspired idea,” says Bindshadler. But nobody has followed it up to work out how practical the scheme would be. “On the back of an envelope it has promise - but these ice shelves are big. You would need a lot of drilling rigs all over the ice shelf, and my intuition is that if you look at the energetics of it, it won’t work,” Bindshadler says.

Even if we could apply brakes to glaciers, this would only slow down sea level rise. Could we do better than that and reverse it - actually make the sea retreat? If you think of the sea as a giant bathtub, then the most obvious way to lower its level is to take out the plug.

“One of the oldest notions is filling depressions on the land,” says MacCracken. Among the largest of these is the Qattara depression in northern Egypt, which at its lowest point is more than 130 metres below sea level. Various schemes have been proposed to channel water from the Mediterranean into the depression to generate hydroelectric power, and as a by-product a few thousand cubic kilometres of the sea would be drained away. Unfortunately, that’s only enough to shave about 3 millimetres off sea level: a drop in the ocean. And there would be grave consequences for the local environment. “The seepage of salt water through fracture systems would salinate aquifers for good,” says Farouk El-Baz, a geologist at Boston University who has studied the region.

Refilling the Dead Sea is no better. Because of surrounding hills, this depression could be filled to 60 metres above sea level, but even that would only offset the rise by 5 millimetres - and drown several towns into the bargain.

How about digging new holes on land to drain away a little more of the ocean? Or better still, dredging the seabed and piling the mud on nearby land to raise its level? The world’s oceans cover 360 million square kilometres, so to reverse a 1-metre rise in level, 360 trillion cubic metres of soil or sediment would have to be dug or dredged, and piled up somewhere. That’s a lot of digging - and in fact the scale of the task is so colossal that even nuclear explosions wouldn’t be up to it. In the Sedan nuclear test of 1962, designed to investigate the possibility of using nuclear explosions for excavating canals, mines and so on, a 100-kilotonne bomb blew a neat hole in the Nevada desert. It is one of the largest artificial craters on Earth, but even so it would hold only a few million cubic metres of water. Not even the most crazed white-cat stroker would suggest setting off hundreds of millions of such charges around the world’s coasts.

Not even the most crazed white-cat stroker would suggest setting off hundreds of millions of nuclear charges
Totally unrealistic
A slightly less improbable notion is to pump seawater up onto the frigid highlands of Antarctica and let it freeze. The East Antarctic ice sheet is thought to be much more stable than its shaky West Antarctic counterpart, and might hang onto its new load for thousands of years. But the scale of the operation that would be required is, to say the least, daunting. The water would have to be pumped 1000 kilometres or more, and raised to an altitude of at least a couple of thousand metres. The energy cost would be staggering. According to New Scientist’s calculations, to shift a metre’s worth of sea level would need several terawatts of power - in the same ballpark as the power consumption of the whole world today - sustained for a century.

“You would also have to make sure your pipes don’t freeze up, which wouldn’t be easy,” says MacCracken. He doesn’t quite rule out the idea, pointing to the success of geothermal hot-water pipes that stretch across the chilly landscape of Iceland. However, Chris Binnie, a UK-based consultant hydrological engineer sees no chance of the idea being put into practice. “It is totally unrealistic,” he says.

Even if this brute force approach were feasible, trying to build up the ice caps might well prove futile if the world continues to warm. There may, however, be a subtler approach that will both add ice to the ice caps and ensure it stays there for millennia.

An old idea for fighting climate change is to spray fine sulphate droplets into the stratosphere, where they would reflect some incoming sunlight and so cool the globe. Rather than spreading the stuff around the planet as is currently being considered, sulphates might be deployed more selectively at high latitudes, acting as parasols for the polar regions. This has been suggested as a way to preserve the vanishing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, but it could also have a fortunate side effect. “We did some climate simulations with reduced solar radiation over the Arctic and Antarctic,” says Ken Caldeira of Stanford University in California. “Greenhouse gases will still be warming equatorial regions, so water is evaporating and the atmosphere is moister. The deflection of sunlight cools high-latitude air masses, so that moisture comes down as snowfall.”

Snow that lands high on an ice cap will stick there, gradually turn to ice, and not return to the seas for many thousands of years. The numbers are promising. Greenland alone might take up as much as a centimetre of sea level per year. If the polar cooling also slows down the flow of outlet glaciers, that might more than make up for the rise in sea level.

Or will it? The notion of engineering lower sea levels remains a highly speculative topic and, as with geoengineering measures intended to cool the planet, the very idea of deliberately messing about with the delicate mechanisms of our planet understandably horrifies many people. Even the enthusiasts say that it could only be part of the answer.

“If the world doesn’t control emissions, I’m pretty sure that no geoengineering solution will work - and it would potentially create other side effects and false promises,” says MacCracken. “But if we do get on a path to curbing emissions dramatically - down 50 per cent by 2050, say - then the question becomes, can geoengineering help with the hump we’re going to go through over the next few centuries?”

How to raise entire cities
When the town of Galveston in Texas was largely destroyed by a hurricane-driven flood in 1900, its citizens decided on a no-nonsense strategy to stop it happening again. They jacked up surviving buildings and shoved sediment in underneath, raising the town by 5 metres. This approach is unlikely to be copied any time soon, though. Lifting buildings is horribly expensive, and would seriously disrupt the workings of an intricately wired-up modern city.

One alternative is using seawater to solve the problem. Andrea Comerlati of the University of Padua in Italy has proposed raising Venice by pumping water into the bedrock 700 metres beneath the city. According to his calculations it would take only 12 wells and 10 years to lift the city by 10 to 40 centimetres.

That could help in the short run but it is not even halfway towards compensating for a metre or more of future sea-level rise. It has another downside, too: if the pumps stop, the land will deflate and the city will sink - a slow-motion farce of a disaster. “To create permanent uplift, you need a layer of solid matter,” says Lawrence Murdoch of Clemson University in South Carolina.

His suggestion is to pump some sort of slurry down a network of boreholes. He reckons that if the geology is right, the high-pressure fluid will create horizontal fractures in the rock that spread out from each borehole, eventually joining up into one continuous layer. When the water gets squeezed out again, the solid particles left behind will form a permanent new layer.

Murdoch has done some small-scale experiments to show that the fracturing does work, and is hoping to get funding for larger field tests. This method has the potential to lift up land areas by several metres, he says. “And disturbance to life at the surface would be relatively slight.”

As a side benefit, you could get rid of waste materials this way. Murdoch suggests using ash from coal-fired power stations, which should set like concrete.

The method might even be used for larger coastal regions, rather than just cities. “I think that it would scale up fairly well,” says Murdoch. Inevitably, money will be the key. To raise a square kilometre of land by a metre would cost roughly $8 million, he calculates. While that might be a bargain for an island airport or a city in the developed world, it is unlikely to help farmers in Bangladesh. Lifting up the land may be strictly for the rich.

Stephen Battersby is a consultant for New Scientist
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