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Could a massive dam between Alaska and Russia save the Arctic?

Jill Burke

1125-bering-strait The Bering Strait, Alaska and Russia. St. Lawrence Island is at the bottom on the image.

Two years ago a science writer from the Netherlands proposed a radical solution to combat melting in the Arctic. In his "North Pole Rescue Plan," Rolf Schuttenhelm suggests blocking the flow of water from the Bering Sea into the Arctic Ocean. He argues that this idea -- crazy as it sounds -- is worth exploring.

"Complete melting of the Arctic would be a great loss. Ecologically, and, why not mention, emotionally," Schuttenhelm wrote in 2008. "It is as wrong as it feels."

The entire region is experiencing rapid climate change, and scientists predict the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free during summer by 2030. Erosion now threatens 31 Alaska villages, and at least 12 of them are looking at relocating. Two of them -- Kivalina and Shishmaref -- are in the very waters, the Chukchi Sea, most impacted by Schuttenhelm's proposals.

These communities are losing ground and history to a warming Earth. Permafrost, the foundation on which their homes rest, is melting at an alarming rate. Coastlines are retreating, eaten and battered by sea waves. Buildings are buckling. Ground is sinking. And millions of dollars are being spent figuring out how best to save these communities.

Meanwhile, the changing climate also threatens the Arctic Ocean's marine life. Both polar bears and walruses, for instance, need expanses of floating ice for hunting and migration. Increased warmth has made the Arctic a more dangerous place for people and wildlife alike. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced it was designating an area of the Alaska Arctic larger than California as critical habitat for polar bears, which are listed as a threatened species because of the melting ice.

With so much at stake, the Dutchman argues that human society must take direct and extraordinary steps to reverse the warming trend and save the planet.

"I disagree with the conclusion we should not act -- out of human inertia," he wrote in his rescue plan. "The cost of inaction is enormous,"

Still, perhaps anticipating the public reaction to meddling with Mother Nature on such a scale, Schuttenhelm realized that it might be hard to tell whether blocking the gap between North America and Asia is an exercise in stupidity -- or one of simple genius. Acting rashly with too many unknowns wouldn't be wise, he acknowledged.

Scientists are deeply skeptical.

"Geo-engineering is an absolute fool's game," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in an interview Tuesday from his office in Boulder, Colo. "This idea that you are going to stop global warming in its tracks by protecting the Arctic is not realistic."

Yet Schuttenhelm is not the first to think damming the Bering merits further study. Decades ago, a Soviet engineer cobbled together a similar, if more elaborate, proposal aimed not at saving the Arctic's trademark chill, but eliminating it.

"We must thaw the ice in the Arctic Ocean," Petr Michailovich Borisov said in 1960 in an interview published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Russian language literary newspaper. (The article was reprinted in English in "The Bering Strait Project: Symposium.")

Borisov believed a thawed Arctic could solve any number of society's cold-driven ailments. Frozen soil and Arctic chill had made the Sakhalin oil fields hard to drill and construction of the Saratov-Moscow gas pipeline more challenging. When warm weather did show up, it sucked moisture from already dry climates, causing severe droughts in Russia and abroad. The frigid Arctic Ocean interfered with rice crops in Northern Japan and grape vines in the North of France, while sea ice clogged and blocked shorter routes for international shipping. And every facet of life was more expensive in the heart of the north's freezer box.

Taming the Arctic's ravenous, frigid ‘beast' through engineering

"Cold is a beast of prey that devours tremendous sums of money," noted the Literaturnaya Gazeta article's author, Boris Lyubimov, who was sympathetic to the cause.

"(Borisov is) dreaming of the time when regions of permanent frost will disappear in our country, in Alaska, in Canada, and the unpopulated tundra will be converted with flowering grazing and meadow lands," Lyubimov wrote. "The Arctic will become warmer, too. Life for people all over the world will become better, happier."


1125-beringdam-2Thus, the route to happiness then (plus saving the Arctic now) may be found in billions of meters of rock and concrete, according to Schuttenhelm and Borisov. While their agendas were very different, they shared the same vision: Connect Siberia to Alaska by way of a massive man-made dam.

The Russian's design was elaborate. Giant prefabricated concrete blocks with built-in pumps would be floated to the choke point of the Arctic -- the Bering Strait -- and installed in a row between the two nations, anchored in the center by two islands, Big and Little Diomede.

His patented concept called for the pumps to draw off the Arctic Ocean's cool surface water and dump it into the Pacific Ocean, creating a pull that would in turn draw the warmer waters from the Atlantic Ocean and the deeper Gulf Stream into the Arctic, where it would melt the ice. Borisov envisioned a great city would emerge to accommodate the dam's builders and those who would ultimately direct the waters of the ocean.

The design featured air and sea ports, shipping locks to allow ships to pass, with a railroad and highway system on the upper decks. Electricity for the project could come from floating nuclear generators, Arctic natural gas or coal, or transmission lines somehow connected to the existing power grid.

If successful, Borisov believed his engineering marvel would create a planet rich in heat and moisture in a "fairy tale manner."

Damming the Bering Sea could chill the Arctic and save the planet. Or will it?

Schuttenhelm, the science writer from the Netherlands, advocated the opposite goal for the Arctic. Instead of adding warm water to heat things up, he argued that saving the ecosystem depends on increasing the influence of fresh water rivers to cool things down. By lowering the salt content of the ocean, you maximize the potential for freezing -- or so his theory goes.

Although he proposed three variations for Arctic-region dams, including one, like Borisov's dream, of blocking the Bering Strait via the Diomede islands, Schuttenhelm preferred a version that spanned the more southerly Bering Sea. It would "fully close off the Pacific waters from the Arctic by building a dam not at the very Bering Strait, the narrowest point, but instead further south in the Bering Sea, on the shallow plain of the continental shelf, connecting St. Lawrence island to the mainland of Alaska and Siberia," he wrote. Key would be positioning it south of the Yukon River.

To maximize benefits of the St. Lawrence location, Schuttenhelm suggested diverting part of the Kuskokwim River into the Yukon to increase the amount "sweet" fresh water flowing North. Because the Diomede version would block the Yukon's water, it could, potentially, increase Arctic's salt content and interfere with ice production. (Fresh water freezes more easily.)

If successful, not only would the Arctic be saved, but the region's permafrost would also stop thawing and slow the release methane into the atmosphere. If that happens, Schuttenhelm theorized, the dam project might easily reap immediate financial benefits -- "10 to 15 billion dollars per year in carbon credits," according to a press release about his concepts.

For all of the Harry Potter wizardry that mere mortals would need to pull off these feats, both men -- though separated by more than a half century -- shared a belief that their fantastic notions must be given serious consideration by modern-day thinkers and scientists.

Geo-engineering the Arctic: A contraption for disaster?

Good luck.

Fiddling with the world's ocean currents is far more foreboding than adjusting the thermostat in your house, according to NSIDC's Mark Serreze.


1125-bering-dam-diomedesWhen you're dealing with the global ecosystem, "tuning the dials of the machine," he said, can lead to unintended, and often severe, consequences.

The Arctic works as a back door to the complex interplay of the world's oceans, he said. Loaded with fresher water than the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean has a taller water column and spills into the Arctic through the Bering Strait. From there, the water essentially flows downhill into the Atlantic, he said.

"When you change the system itself, it's not just something that might protect the Arctic," he said. "It has global implications. ... Let's not monkey with this."

Plus, Serreze said, it's already too late to stop global warming. Therefore, society's time and money is better spent looking for ways to mitigate the damage and promote adaptation to inevitable changes.

"You have to be realistic about this. We are not going to go back to the Stone Age here. Even if we flat-line carbon monoxide emissions, you still have warming in the pipeline," he said.

Serreze also accepts that fossil fuels are going to be a big part of the world's energy future for quite some time.

"We built our society around this and we did not realize it was a trap. And now we have to work our way out of it," he said. "To say we can just geo-engineer our way out of this is not the way to go."

At least one Alaskan scientist is also skeptical.

"The problem with fooling with the climate is you push the button here, and you have an effect that shows up somewhere else," said Tom Weingartner, a marine sciences professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Damming the Bering Strait could make things worse for the Arctic life, scientists say

Weingartner has particular concerns about a dam interfering with the migratory patterns of sea life -- concerns Schuttenhelm thinks are worth the risk. As undesired as creating a barrier between the Pacific and Arctic oceans may be, "the ecological ‘cost of inaction' seems much bigger," Schuttenhelm wrote, adding that passage through the Bering Strait did not seem to be a crucial passageway for Arctic whales, like the Bowhead and Beluga.

In Weingartner's estimation, Schuttenhelm's assessment is simply wrongheaded.

"The Bering Strait is a really important migratory corridor for organisms tiny to huge, plankton to Marine mammals," he said. "I don't know how you're going to allow whales and walruses to pass."

The nutrients that flow into the Chukchi Sea from the Pacific Ocean foster an abundant marine environment filled with plants, shrimp, crabs, fish, birds, seals, polar bears and whales, scientists say, with all of it dependant on the interplay of the various water currents that collide at the top of the world and travel in layers.

"You'll almost immediately change the composition of the Chukchi ecosystem," Weingartner said.

He is also skeptical that any dam would deliver the intended benefits. A lot of fresh water circulating in the Arctic comes not just from rivers, but also the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific. Flushing the Bering Strait with the waters of the Yukon River would represent just a fraction of the fresh water that now flows in.

There are a host of other problems, he believes, with such an idea: What about shipping traffic, including military submarines that travel in depths far below the surface? How will a dam withstand damage from sea ice? How can a compromise version - a shorter dam or "threshold" that doesn't quite reach the surface, as Schuttenhelm has also proposed - be built with enough clearance to both block the deep, warm, saltier ocean currents and still allow vessels and sea life to travel through?

Serreze summed up his misgivings about human-controlled weather experiments like a Bering Strait dam in blunt, unmistakable terms.

"Perhaps the time will come when we might have to consider geo-engineering solutions, but if that's the case, I don't want to be on the planet," he said. "It's a fool's game. It's just silly."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.