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SYFY WIRE climate science

'Snowpiercer's climate engineering could help us to refreeze Earth's poles in real life

Hopefully it's not exactly like Snowpiercer.

By Cassidy Ward
Sea Ice Comparison

In the 2013 science fiction film Snowpiercer, humanity attempts to stem the bleeding of human-driven climate change by releasing a whole bunch of particles into the atmosphere. The idea is to block out some percentage of sunlight and cool the planet. Obviously, things did not go according to plan for the residents and survivors on the Snowpiercer. The movie is an examination of inequity within the microcosm of the titular train, but it’s just as much a warning about the potential pitfalls of climate engineering. Still, there are those within the scientific community who are pursuing similar strategies for future use in the real world. We can only hope such fictional dystopian predictions don't come true.

For most of us, we interface with climate change in small ways. The documentary Climate of Change (now streaming on Peacock!) outlines some of the common ways ordinary people are working to restore the environment. We use canvas shopping bags and recycle, we buy an electric car, or put solar panels on the roof. We each take small steps which, hopefully, collectively make a big difference. The reality, however, is that climate change largely isn’t driven by the everyday actions of individual people. It’s a vast, systemic problem resulting from the organized efforts of corporations and governments. A problem born of large causes will likely need equally large solutions.

At its root, anthropogenic climate change is the result of excess greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. As concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane increase — there are other greenhouse gases, but these are the big baddies — they trap increasing amounts of heat in the air. Consequently, average global temperatures rise. Truly stopping and reversing climate change will require the cessation of greenhouse gas emissions and, probably, some form of carbon capture to pull carbon out of the air and sequester it.

RELATED: Filming suspended on Snowpiercer’s frozen final season... due to dangerous, excessive heat wave

In the meantime, some scientists are cooking up ways to turn down the heat on the planet. A collection of scientists from various institutions including Yale, Harvard, and Cornell have published a proposal in the journal Environmental Research Communications which could cool the north and south poles by a couple of degrees.

The Earth’s poles are a particular area of interest because they are warming at a faster rate than the global average and because of their role in an undesirable feedback loop. Ice reflects sunlight incredibly well. Up to 80% of sunlight that strikes ice is bounced back into space before it has a chance to heat us up. The ice caps are basically giant shields, protecting us from some measure of temperature rise, but those shields are shrinking. As the ice melts, there is less of it to reflect light, so the temperature rises and more ice melts. The process is self-supporting until eventually there’s so little ice that our shield is effectively gone.

Preventing further ice loss and, preferably, recovering some of the ice we’ve already lost would go a long way toward getting the global climate back where it needs to be. The proposed program would use what’s known as stratospheric aerosol injections to release tiny particles into the atmosphere. We would need a fleet of approximately 125 airplanes, flying at a height of roughly 43,000 feet releasing particles into the air.

They could be deployed at more central latitudes and ride the air currents toward the poles where they would accumulate. The collective influence of the particles would block some of the sunlight from making it to the surface, placing the poles under a thin shadow. Seasonal resupplies would need to be undertaken at an estimated cost of $11 billion per year. That pales in comparison, however, to the projected economic cost of runaway climate change. The NRDC estimates a cost of $820 billion per year, just in increased health costs from air pollution and climate change, alone. That says nothing about the other costs. In comparison, $11 billion per year is nothing.

In exchange for our monies and a fleet of airplanes, scientists calculate the temperature at the poles could drop by approximately 2 degrees Celsius, putting them close to their pre-industrial average temperatures.

The team notes that this strategy can only address a symptom of climate change and not the cause. It’s a temporary crutch while we do the larger work of decarbonizing our energy infrastructure and removing excess carbon. It’s the climate engineering equivalent of breaking the fever with an ice bath while we treat the infection.