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Even if the world immediately halted the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change and warming the waters beneath the Ice Shelf, it would do nothing to thicken and re-stabilize the Thwaites’ critical pillar, says John Moore, a glaciologist and professor at the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland in Finland.
“So the only way to prevent collapse is to physically stabilize the ice sheets,” he says.
This requires what is variously referred to as active conservation, radical adaptation, or glacial geoengineering.
Moore and others have outlined several ways humans could intervene to preserve important glaciers. Some of the plans include building artificial braces through polar megaprojects or installing other structures that would trick nature into recreating existing ones. The basic idea is that a handful of engineering efforts at the source of the problem could greatly reduce the property damage and flooding hazards that virtually every coastal city and low-lying island nation will face, as well as the costs of the adaptation projects needed to minimize them.
If it works, it could potentially preserve important ice sheets for a few centuries, buying time to reduce emissions and stabilize the climate, the researchers say.
But there would be massive logistical, technical, legal and financial challenges. And it’s not yet clear how effective the interventions would be, or if they could be implemented before some of the largest glaciers are lost.
divert heating of the water
In articles and papers published in 2018, Moore, Princeton’s Michael Wolovick and others have highlighted the possibility of preserving important glaciers, including the Thwaites, through massive earthmoving projects. This includes shipping or dredging large quantities of material to build berms or artificial islands around or under important glaciers. The structures would support glaciers and ice shelves blocking the warm, dense layers of water at the seafloor melting them from below, or both.
More recently, she and researchers at the University of British Columbia have been investigating a more technical concept: the construction of what they call “seafloor-anchored curtains.” These would be buoyant flexible sheets of geotextile material that could retain and divert warm water.
The hope is that this proposal would be cheaper than previous ones and that these curtains could withstand iceberg collisions and be removed if there were negative side effects. Researchers modeled the use of these structures around three glaciers in Greenland, as well as the Thwaites and nearby Pine Island glaciers.