Scientists Say Building Walls on the Seafloor May Stop Glaciers from Melting

Building walls on the seafloor may become the next frontier of climate science, as engineers seek novel ways to hold back the sea level rises predicted to result from global warming.

By erecting barriers of rock and sand, researchers believe they could halt the slide of undersea glaciers as they disintegrate into the deep. It would be a drastic endeavour but could buy some time if climate change takes hold, according to a new paper published on Thursday in the Cryosphere journal, from the European Geosciences Union.

Though the notion may sound far-fetched, the design would be relatively straightforward. “We are imagining very simple structures, simply piles of gravel or sand on the ocean floor,” said Michael Wolovick, a researcher at the department of geosciences at Princeton University in the US who described the plans as “within the order of magnitude of plausible human achievements”.

The structures would not just be aimed at holding back the melting glaciers, but at preventing warmer water from reaching the bases of the glaciers under the sea. New research is now being undertaken by scientists showing how the effects of the warmer water around the world, as the oceans warm, may be the leading cause of underwater melting of the glaciers.

Wolovick and his fellow researchers ran computer models to check on the likely impacts of the structures they believe would be needed, taking as their starting point the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, which at 80-100km is one of the widest glaciers in the world.

They found that creating a structure of isolated columns or mounds on the sea floor, each about 300 metres high, would require between 0.1 and 1.5 cubic km of aggregate material. This would make such a project similar to the amount of material excavated to form Dubai’s Palm Islands, which took 0.3 cubic km of sand and rock, or the Suez canal, which required the excavation of roughly one cubic km.

Building a structure of this kind would have about a 30% probability of preventing a runaway collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, according to the models.

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SOURCE: The Guardian, Fiona Harvey

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