Scientists Propose a Gigantic Floating Curtain to Slow Down Sea Level Rise

There are plenty of questions surrounding the use of a curtain to re-route a warm current melting the Jakobshavn Glacier. Photo: screenshot

The Inertia

The ocean is rising. Some of the latest estimates say that by 2100, sea levels could rise by as much as five feet. And by 2300, as much as 30 feet. Bid farewell to all your low-tide surf spots and prepare for the new norm of mushy, high-tide groveling. However, some scientists – glaciologists to be exact – think they might have a solution to reduce the rate of sea level rise, and, of course, save surfing wonders like Pipeline and J-Bay. They’ve hypothesized that a strategically placed curtain in front of a glacier could do the trick. 

A January 6 story published in the New York Times delves into the “curtain” idea spearheaded by British glaciologist John Moore. While Moore was listening to a presentation about the precarious state of the Jakobshavn Glacier on the western shores of Greenland (the same glacier some theorize birthed the chunk of ice that sunk the Titanic), he started brainstorming solutions. A warm-water current that flows from the Atlantic Ocean about a 1,000-feet deep has been eating away at the glacier. At the entrance to the fjord that houses the glacier, Moore noticed a three-mile long ridge that protrudes several hundred feet off the ocean floor. It made him think: Why not just address the problem of sea level rise at the source? Could we enlarge that ridge and divert the deep, warm-water current away from the glacier? That would, in theory, allow the glacier to re-stabilize.

The Jakobshavn Glacier drains 30-50 billion tons of ice off the ice sheets of Greenland each year. It is estimated that this glacier alone accounted for four percent of the sea level rise experienced in the 20th century and can, according to the New York Times article, probably push sea levels up another foot on its own. It’s also one of the fastest deteriorating glaciers in the world. The surrounding water has increased about one degree Celsius in temperature since the 1990s. 

Thus, Moore and his colleague Michael Wolovick published an article in 2018 that proposed a giant underwater sea wall. Their first idea was to increase the height of the pre-existing ridge on the seafloor another hundred meters with sand and gravel. That idea was later discarded and transformed into the curtain idea – a device attached to the seabed that would float high enough from the ocean floor (but not all the way to the surface) to deflect the deep, warm water current. Estimates say it could cost as much as USD $500 million.

While the idea is still a hypothesis, they’ve also thought about what type of material the curtain would be made of. Plastic was excluded, given that there is enough loose plastic already floating in the ocean as is. Whatever material they use would have to be sturdy, but also slippery enough to allow deep floating icebergs to slide by it. The latest idea is to use a tight mesh/net-like material. 

Of course, not everyone is ecstatic about the idea of inserting something so large into the ocean. The article introduces several experts who have their doubts. Their counter arguments include how such an object would affect the ecosystem, potential opposition from native Greenlanders, if a diverted ocean current would even have much impact given the ice sheets are also melting from increased air temperatures, potential damage to the seabed, and if the curtain would even be able to successfully divert the current as it aims to do.

Even Moore acknowledges that it might be too late to implement a curtain at the Jakobshavn Glacier, saying that 20 years ago it may have worked, but the air and water in Greenland are likely already getting too warm. He’s already looking towards even larger and consequential glaciers in Antarctica. And Wolovick is sure to point out that they will not dive into any rash decisions without abundant scientific evidence, stating, “It’s vital that we’re not perceived as just rushing into things recklessly. If we rush into it too fast, then people would rightly be skeptical.”

The article brings up an interesting debate in geoengineering – large scale manipulation of environmental processes for a perceived societal benefit. At what point is reducing emissions simply not going to do enough and more drastic measures need to be taken into consideration to avoid catastrophe?

David Holland, an oceanographer from New York University who is introduced in the article, doesn’t necessarily agree or disagree with Moore’s curtain idea, but he thinks it warrants debate. When theorizing about intervening in the potential catastrophic melting of the Antarctic Thwaites glacier, he said, “So you look at it and say: Well, the cost to the world is Florida’s gone. Bangladesh is gone. Lots of little cities around the world are gone. Big cities, too, like Shanghai. I mean, the cost events are just so large it’s incomprehensible.”

But more importantly, for all of us self-absorbed surfers, what about our surf spots?! Are humans capable of working together to reduce carbon emission in such a meaningful way as to reverse the effects of climate change? Or does human intelligence need to take our capabilities to the next level to think of drastic, yet creative, measures to prevent sea level rise. Whatever solution humanity comes up with, the fate of Pipeline and J-Bay (and just about anywhere you’ve ever surfed) is hanging in the balance.


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