A research project that’s exploring whether covering sea ice with tiny reflective beads could help slow climate warming is drawing concerns from Arctic communities in Alaska and tribal and conservation groups over potential impacts to the environment.
Sea ice stretches like a blanket from coastal Alaska communities, offering residents a path for travel and a surface from which they can hunt and fish. What the ice also provides is sunlight reflection and protection from rapid warming.
With ice getting thinner and losing its light reflectivity, scientists and activists are searching for solutions. A nonprofit organization, Arctic Ice Project, is looking into a way to protect the Earth’s natural heat shield by applying reflective glass microspheres on young, low-reflectivity sea ice.
Twelve tribes — including the villages of Nuiqsut and Point Hope — and more than 25 organizations such as Native Movement and The Alaska Center have spoken out against the project, signing on to a letter laying out their worries that reflective microbeads could harm animals and people living in the Arctic.
In the letter to Arctic Ice Project, they expressed their concerns about how the hollow glass microspheres can pollute the environment, affect boat motors and air traffic and harm the health of humans and marine animals that ingest the material. They also said that Arctic Ice Project researchers did not consult local Indigenous groups and didn’t receive appropriate governmental permits to conduct research.
“We are very concerned about what it may do to animals that we depend upon to feed our families and how it’s going to affect their ecosystems and the importance for everything that we use in our daily lives,” said Nuiqsut’s mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak.
Researchers said that over the next four to five years, they plan to continue testing the safety of the material in labs and through computer modeling before they conduct more tests in the field. The prospect of moving forward with the project and deploying the materials in the Arctic is even farther in the future and will happen only if researchers obtain all necessary permits and the approval of local residents.
“We certainly don’t want to do any damage to the environment. That’s the last thing we want to do,” said Dr. Steven Zornetzer, a retired scientist from NASA Ames who is on the scientific advisory board for Arctic Ice Project. “What we want to do is restore and protect the environment.”
Arctic Ice Project was launched in 2008 as ICE911 by founder Leslie Field, who conducted tests in parts of Canada and Alaska. Tribal leaders said in the letter that they started raising their concerns to Field back in 2019, but did not receive a sufficient response.
Arctic Ice Project representatives said that since its foundation, the organization has changed its leadership, name and approach, taking a step back from field testing and returning to lab testing and computer modeling.
The big idea behind the project still remains the same: to restore ice reflectivity in the Arctic and slow down global warming by 10 to 15 years, said Tom Light, executive director of Arctic Ice Project.
To reach their goal, researchers want to cover selected icy areas with tiny reflective beads made of silica — or silicon dioxide — which occurs naturally in sand and is often used to make glass.
Project critics argue that silica is toxic to inhale. “Sea mammals live and give birth in the region in which the synthetic materials would be deployed,” the letter said.
For example, in the area around the North Slope village of Point Lay, the animals are always there, said Sophie Tracey, the secretary for the village’s tribal council.
“The walruses, they haul out here — like, 100,000 of them will be right here on our beaches,” Tracey said. “And then every year, 30 miles south of us, there’s a little lagoon called Omalik Lagoon, and that’s where the belugas go in and take off their top layer of skin before they start swimming up here towards Point Lay and Wainwright.”
Researchers say the microbeads they want to use are too large to be inhaled and too small to be noticeable in the environment.
“The material that we’re working with are basically small hollow silica beads, made of the same material as sand,” Arctic Ice board chairman Steve Payne said. “There’s already a lot of sand and silica in seawater.”
Ahtuangaruak said that while microbeads might pose no risk for some people or animals, that might change in a different setting or for a different organism.
In the letter to Arctic Ice Project, the groups said that even if the material is too large to be inhaled, “there are concerns that the microspheres will break down over time and will eventually become small enough to cause harm to humans or to the animals Indigenous Peoples rely on to survive.” They said that drawing a definitive conclusion about how the material will affect organisms and ecosystem would require larger-scale testing, which in turn can be harmful to vulnerable populations.
Cleanup of the tiny particles is another concern: Project critics wrote that the microbeads are likely to be blown by the Arctic winds or carried by migratory birds onto the tundra, potentially harming plants and animals there.
Plus, for a village such as Nuiqsut, even a chance of polluting the environment seems too risky. The community has been concerned about health and safety, given the high amount of particulate matter affecting air quality.
“To add additional particulates into the air when we already have very large emissions is ludicrous,” Ahtuangaruak said. “Why would we encourage putting our air at further risk?”
So far, the material is proving to be not toxic, even in large quantities of ingestion, Zornetzer said. He added that researchers plan to continue extensive testing of its effects on animals, plants and humans — “starting with zooplankton and phytoplankton working our way all the way up to the top of the food chain” — and share the results of those tests with the public.
“We’re focusing much more heavily now on understanding the material itself,” Zornetzer said. “What happens to it when it’s actually put out on ice in a windy, cold, uncontrolled environment? What happens to it? We want to know that. … What happens to these particles when they break up? What’s thefate of them? Do they stick to the bottom? Do they continue to float?
“That’s the emphasis of the research that we’re doing now with our partners, is asking those questions before we feel where we should get out on the ice with field testing.”
Critics said in their letter that project leaders have not consulted with governmental and environmental agencies, or Indigenous groups that rely on the Arctic for sustenance.
“Arctic communities have a right to know and consent to foreign substances that will be introduced to their diets and environment, whether or not those materials are deemed safe by non-native, Western standards,” the letter to Arctic Ice Project says. “A lack of tribal consultation means the true experts of the Arctic are not being consulted and our Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is not being applied.”
Researchers said that if the lab and computer modeling indicate that their project is effective and safe, they would ask for appropriate permissions from the EPA or other governmental organizations that have jurisdiction over the area, as well as Indigenous groups, to move forward with field testing. Payne also proposed adding a local representative to the board of directors to help with communication and understanding residents’ concerns and priorities.
“If we’re doing it off the coast of Alaska, for example, we need to work very closely with the U.S. EPA and Indigenous tribes that have hunting or fishing activities in the area,” Zornetzer said. “We need to work with them to make sure that if we’re working in their territories that we have their permission.”