A ‘reckless’ Arctic geoengineering project draws local criticism
By Megan Gannon
An Alaska Native delegation, including a handful of Nomeites, stood outside a country club in Menlo Park, California, last month with a banner that resembled a red road sign: “Wrong Way, Do Not Enter.”
Their message was directed at the Arctic Ice Project, the geoengineering group that was raising money inside for a scheme to slow climate change by sprinkling tiny, sunlight-reflecting silica beads over sea ice.
The organizers of the protest want the Arctic Ice Project to cease its research operations. They cited concerns over potential health impacts on humans and marine life, and a lack of meaningful consultation with those who rely on the ice for subsistence activities.
The delegation outlined their objections in a letter signed by Kawerak, Native Movement and Alaska Community Action on Toxics and other organizations, as well as several villages including Gambell, Savoonga, Unalakleet and Saint Michael.
“There are too many dimensions that are not considered,” said Pangaanga Pangawyi, the geoengineering organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, the group behind last month’s demonstration. “It’s very reckless, and there’s no way to answer those questions until you deploy it.”
Engineer Leslie Field founded the Silicon Valley-based Arctic Ice Project in 2008 under the name Ice911 with a goal to adhere salt grain-sized hollow glass beads to the surface of sea ice to brighten it and thus stall its melting. In a 2017 interview with her alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, Field explained how she came up with the “embarrassingly simple” concept after thinking about how to approach the loss of sea ice in the Arctic as a “materials challenge.” She deployed her concept at field test sites, including one in Utqiagvik. The Ice911 team released 45,000 square feet of the material on a section of North Meadow Lake in May 2017 in one of their biggest tests.
Those tests came as a surprise to Pangawyi, who has St. Lawrence Island roots and is a longtime Nome resident who recently relocated to Anchorage. She learned about the project when it was given a platform at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik in 2019. She said the project’s narrative has always been that they were working with the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, but she did not believe that a partnership with a for-profit entity satisfied the definition of meaningful consultation.
Tribal groups, environmentalists and scientists have expressed doubts about the feasibility of the project and worry over its impact. Could the beads harm seabirds and seals? Or damage boat motors of hunters? Would harsh winds blow the material all over unintended parts of the tundra? But for Pangawyi, a bigger question is at stake.
“Regardless of whether or not the science is sound and safe, they still need free, prior, informed consent,” she told The Nome Nugget. “Any debate beyond the fact that they don’t have free, prior and informed consent honestly is just noise.”
Tom Light became executive director of Ice911 two years ago, and under his leadership, the group has shifted its strategy, focusing now on lab research and computer modeling before attempting large-scale tests in the real world again, said Steve Zornetzer, vice chair of the board of directors and a former associate director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. The group also changed its name to Arctic Ice Project, and Field, the engineer, left the team a few months ago over differences in opinion about that new strategy, he added.
That shift isn’t likely to satisfy the project’s critics.
Pangawyi said that ending field tests “without publicly and prominently stating these mistakes and without formally apologizing and asking what restitution would be adequate from our perspective is indicative of a lack of accountability and integrity.”
Zornetzer confirmed that the nonprofit organization does not currently have any partners in Alaska and it is not actively engaged in consultation with Indigenous groups. He said in an email that they are “considering the possibility of including a representative of native peoples to join our Board of Directors and or our Scientific Advisory Board.” For now, they are working on lab research at SINTEF, headquartered in Trondheim, Norway.
Zornetzer said SINTEF has unique facilities where they can test their material in flumes that use actual Arctic Ocean water under artificially created turbulent conditions, including wind and sea action. “Plus, they’re doing chemical analyses [and] electron microscope analyses to understand what happens to the material once it’s subjected to these as natural Arctic conditions as possible that can be recreated in the laboratory,” he said. “Is it going to answer every possible question? I don’t know. Is it going to answer our most major concerns? Yes. I think it’s the best we can do without going into the field itself.”
As geoengineering schemes attract more attention and funding as potential Band-Aids for climate change, they’ve also become a target for climate justice organizers who worry about far-reaching and unexpected consequences of tinkering with complex ecosystems.
The project to attract the most controversy in recent years is perhaps the Harvard-born, Bill Gates-backed SCoPEx, a solar geoegineering concept to spray aerosol particles of calcium carbonate into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the planet. SCoPEx had plans to launch test balloons from Kiruna in northern Sweden last year. Much of the opposition to those tests was led by the Saami people who are native to the region. The test flights were suspended after an external committee of advisors to SCoPEx recommended that the group first initiate a process of “robust and inclusive public engagement” in Sweden.
From Pangawyi’s perspective, controversies over geoengineering projects are often falsely framed as a “debate” between Indigenous communities and scientists.
Meanwhile, many scientists are skeptical of the moonshot, tech-heavy approach to addressing climate change.
Andy Mahoney, a researcher who studies Arctic sea ice at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, had been approached by the Arctic Ice Project several years ago when it was still called Ice911. He did not join and said he thinks the concept is “wildly unfeasibly.”
He also explained that in the Arctic science community, there’s been growing awareness over the last decade or so of the value of incorporating Indigenous knowledge and establishing co-led research projects that will lead to better science.
“I think more and more people are becoming aware of the fact that as researchers, we’re doing science in somebody’s backyard,” Mahoney said. “And we can’t just walk in and start doing that without engaging with the community to start with.”
Additionally, he worried about the big promises of groups like the Arctic Ice Project.
“I think it is somewhat dangerous to approach the problem of climate change with the idea that it could be solved by sprinkling some powder on the surface of the ice, which is how it’s presented in a lot of their outreach materials,” Mahoney said.
Similarly, Pangawyi said that there are known solutions to halting climate change, like investing in renewable energy and keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
“Those real solutions are masked by these geoengineering technologies,” Pangawyi said. “These are a distraction. They’re dangerous. They’re not safe. They’re theoretical.”