Giant ice cube to fight climate change in Mongolia

Scientists in Ulan Bator are trying a radical new technique to keep the city cool during its boiling summers: constructing one of the world’s biggest blocks of ice.

Sweltering summers and icy-cold winters have long been problematic for the population of Mongolia. With temperatures dropping as low as -50°C in winter, then rising to peaks of 25°C at the hottest times of the year, adapting life to the weather can prove a challenge.

In the past, Mongolians have coped with these extremes by living nomadic lives in traditional lightweight dwellings called gers and moving with the changing seasons.

Now, though, planners in the capital city, Ulan Bator, are taking a more radical approach to the problem. Rather than adapting to the summer heat, they are attempting to actually alter the climate of the city, by cooling it down with a gigantic ice pack.

The £460,000 project will drill through the frozen surface of the Tuul river during the freezing winters to stimulate the creation of natural ice formations called naleds. These occur when underground rivers and springs seep through surface cracks, freezing in thin repeated layers to create huge blocks of ice that can reach up to seven metres thick.

It is hoped that this sort of giant ice cube could be stored until summer, creating a cooler microclimate in Ulan Bator as it melts, reducing the need for pricey air conditioning, and providing a reliable source of clean water in the city.

This project is one of many examples of geoengineering – the use of technology to alter natural environments or processes and change the climate. The ultimate aim is to reduce the negative affects of global warming.

One of the leading – and most controversial – examples of a geoengineering scheme is the idea of creating an atmospheric smog from sulphuric acid that will cool our planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. Another proposes dumping calcium oxide into the sea, causing a chemical reaction that would allow more greenhouse gas in the air to be absorbed by oceans.

Fool’s gold

Projects like this, say some scientists, offer us hope in the face of approaching global disaster. Living creatures since the time of the dinosaurs have been at the mercy of changing world temperatures. The correct use of technologies like these – and many more as time goes on – could bring about an extraordinary future, in which humans, for the first time, actually control the climate, rather than the other way around.

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well it is, say environmentalists. Geoengineering is a fantasy that lets us pretend global warming is an easily solvable problem. In reality, they argue, the only way to avoid climate disaster is to radically change our lifestyles – learning to consume less of the world’s resources, burn less fossil fuel, and live in harmony with nature before it is too late.

You Decide

  1. Does technology have solutions to climate change?
  2. Could you live an ultra-sustainable lifestyle? What luxuries would you be willing to give up to prevent climate change?

Activities

  1. Invent and design EITHER your own geoengineering project OR your own sustainable living project.
  2. Choose one other major geoengineering project that is being discussed in the world today. Produce a brief report for policy-makers, describing its advantages and disadvantages.

Some People Say...

“Humans will always be able to invent their way out of trouble.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What exactly is so special about these giant ice cubes?
Normally, when rivers are very cold, a thick layer of surface ice actually insulates water running beneath and prevents it from freezing. When you drill holes in the surface of the ice, water seeps up from below and freezes in contact with the air. This process can be repeated for layer after layer, building up a block so thick that it would take ages to melt, even in summer heat.
And is climate change really so desperate that we need such weird solutions?
A recent report from the International Energy Agency has warned that within five years, the harm from climate change may become irreversible. It will be too late to do anything about it.

Word Watch

Gers
A ‘ger’, sometimes called a ‘yurt’ is a portable hut used by nomads on the great plains (the ‘steppes’) of Central Asia. Gers are traditionally made of felt, i.e. beaten wool. They are relatively light, but surprisingly warm.
Ulan Bator
Also known as Ulaanbaatar, the city is the capital of Mongolia and has a population of around one million. It is growing quickly as many Mongolians abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyles.
Microclimate
A small area with a different climate to the land around it. Cities often have unique climates because of the ‘urban heat island’ effect.
Changing world temperatures
Global climate has changed many times over the history of our planet. It has been both much colder and much hotter than today. Rapid swings between extremes have caused the extinction of many species.

Subjects

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