How The USSR Tried To Melt The Arctic

The story of one intrepid Soviet scientist, his quest to dam the Bering Strait, melt the Arctic and bring prosperity to the Frozen North. Aside from the massive, man-made global warming, what could possibly go wrong?

The idea of melting the Arctic ice cap dates at least to the 1870s, when Harvard geologist Nathaniel Shaler suggested channelling more of the warm Kuroshio Current through the Bering Strait:

Whenever the Alaskan gates to the pole are unbarred, the whole of the ice-cap of the circumpolar regions must at once melt away; all the plants of the northern continents, now kept in narrow bounds by the arctic cold, would begin their march towards the pole...It is not too much to say that the life-sustaining power of the lands north of forty degrees of latitude would be doubled by the breaking down of the barrier which cuts off the Japanese current from the pole.

In 1912 Carroll Livingston Riker, an engineer, inventor, and industrialist, proposed a scheme to change the climate of polar regions by tinkering with the ocean currents of the Atlantic. This was to be accomplished by preventing the cold Labrador Current from colliding with the Gulf Stream. To do this, he proposed building a 200-mile causeway extending east from Cape Race off the coast of Newfoundland. The theory was that the causeway could be built by suspending a long rope cable, or "obstructor," in the ocean that would act to slow the southward flow of the Labrador Current, causing it to deposit its sediment load. Potential benefits of diverting the Gulf Stream farther east (shades of Thomas Jefferson) included fewer fogs and a general warming of northern climates. Riker's proposal was inspired by recently completed mega-projects such as Henry Flagler's railroad bridge from Key West, Florida, to the mainland and the ongoing excavation of the Panama Canal. The tragic sinking of the Titanic also lent urgency to his proposal, since his causeway might help remove icebergs from shipping lanes. Riker was supported in Congress by Representative William Musgrave Calder (R-New York), who proposed the creation of a Commission on the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was not at all convinced by the proposal, but thought that a general survey of the currents of the Grand Banks would be useful.

An ice-free Arctic Ocean was one of the largest-scale and most widely discussed climate-engineering projects of the time. Jules Verne's story The Purchase of the North Pole (1889) may have been inspired by such ideas. Ironically, an ice-free Arctic ocean is something we may actually see sooner or later through a combination of natural and anthropogenic influences. In 1957 Soviet academician Borisov, alluding to the centuries-old quest of the Russian people to overcome the Northland cold, proposed building a dam across the Bering Strait to melt the Arctic sea ice. In numerous articles and then again in his book Can Man Change the Climate? (1973), Borisov detailed his vision of a dam 50 miles long and almost 200 feet high with shipping locks and pumping stations. He proposed that the dam be built in 820-foot sections made of prefabricated freeze-resistance ferroconcrete that could be floated to the construction site and anchored to the sea bottom with pilings. He further suggested that the top of the dam be shaped so that ice floes would ride up over the dam and break off on the southern side. An alternative design included an intercontinental highway and railroad. According to Borisov, "What mankind needs is war against cold, rather than a ‘cold war.'"

To liquidate Arctic sea ice, Borisov wanted to pump cold seawater out of the Arctic Ocean, across the dam, and into the Bering Sea and the North Pacific. This displacement would allow the inflow of warmer water from the North Atlantic, eliminate fresh water in the surface layer in several years, and thus prevent the formation of ice in the Arctic Basin, creating warmer climate conditions:

In this day and age, with mankind's expanding powers of transforming the natural environment, the project we are advancing does not present any technical difficulties. The pumping of the warm Atlantic water across into the Pacific ocean will take the Arctic ocean out of its present state of a dead-end basin for the Atlantic water [and]drive the Arctic surface water out into the Pacific ocean through the Bering Strait.

His goal was to remove a 61m layer of cold surface water, which would be replaced by warmer, saltier water that would not freeze. Inspired by Markin's popular book Soviet Electric Power, Borisov also assumed that huge amounts of electricity would soon be available to run the pumps, perhaps from hydroelectric generators or nuclear reactors.

The dam was, of course, never built, but if it had been attempted, would the nations of the world have confronted the Russians? The net climatic effect of the project, if it had been carried out, is still highly uncertain. A good argument can be made that the effect would be less than that of naturally occurring variations in the Atlantic influx, but none of the computer models at the time were sophisticated enough to show any robust results. Other ocean-engineering schemes included installing giant turbines in the Strait of Florida to generate electricity and adding a thin film of alcohol to the northern branch of the Gulf Stream to decrease surface water evaporation and warm the water by several degrees, although the cod might become rather tipsy.

In Japan, engineers imagined that the icy Sea of Okhotsk could be tamed by deflecting the warm Kuroshio Current with a dam or one-way water valve built at the Tatarsk Strait. And in a 1970 geo-engineering experiment thought suitable only for testing on a computer model (aren't they all?), the Japanese geo-scientific speculator Keiji Higuichi wondered what would happen to the global atmospheric and oceanic circulation and thus the world's climate if the Drake Passage, between the tip of South America and Antarctica, was blocked by an ice dam. One possibility was the onset of a new ice age.

Russian scientists warned of possible climate disruption from such mega-projects. Borisov admitted that the large-scale climatic and ecological effects of his Bering Strait dam could not be fully predicted, nor could they be confined within the borders of any one national state; rather, they would directly involve the national interests of the Soviet Union, Canada, Denmark, and the United States and indirectly affect many countries in other areas that might experience climate change caused by the project. With such a dam in place, the middle-latitude winters would be milder due to the warming of Arctic and polar air masses. He thought areas such as the Sahara would be much better watered and would perhaps turn into steppe land or savannah. Direct benefits of an ice-free Arctic ocean would include new, more-direct shipping routes between East Asia and Europe, while, by his overly optimistic calculations, sea-level rise would be modest, even with the melting of the Greenland ice cap. Yet such climatic changes elsewhere were of little concern to the Soviets. Larisa R. Rakipova noted that a substantial Arctic warming could cool the winters in Africa by 50C, "leading to a complete disruption of the living conditions for people, animals, and plants," and Oleg A. Drozdov warned that the warming of the Arctic would lead to a total breakdown of moisture exchange between the oceans and continents with excess rain in the Far East and great aridity in Europe. The resulting drastic changes in the soils, vegetation, water regime, and other natural conditions would have widespread negative ecological, economic, and social consequences. As in the fictional case described earlier in The Evacuation of England, Rusin and Flit also wondered what might happen if the Americans implemented one of their projects and turned the Gulf Stream toward the shores of America: "In Europe the temperature would drop sharply and glaciers would begin to advance rapidly". In his book The Gulf Stream (1973), T. F. Gaskell pointed out, "This is why such natural phenomena as the Gulf Stream have political implications." 37 Geoengineers should realise that the same is true of a wide range of natural phenomena.

In addition to sea ice, the Soviets were also battling the "curse of the Siberians" - permafrost as thick as 488m in places. One suggestion to remove it involved applying soot to the snowfields to absorb more sunlight; or perhaps cheaper materials such as ash or peat could do the job. Reminding their readers that "everyone knows what permafrost is," Rusin and Flit recounted its horrors: "A newly constructed house unexpectedly begins to shift, a Russian stove suddenly begins to sink into the ground, deeply driven piles spring from the ground," and when it melts and refreezes, the trees of the mysterious "drunken forests" lean akilter, like a Siberian full of vodka. In the 21st century, permafrost has reemerged not as a local curse but as something to be saved, in part to preserve the migration patterns of the reindeer and caribou, and as a global environmental issue because of its high methane gas content. In 1962 Rusin and Flit opined, "Much has been learned, but it has been impossible to completely eliminate permafrost."

James Rodger Fleming is a historian of science and technology and professor of science, technology and society at Colby College. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He recently held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution.

Fixing the Sky: the Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control is available at Amazon.

Excerpted from Fixing the Sky by James Rodger Fleming. Copyright 2010 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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