What Not To Name Your Geoengineering Project: Ice-Nine-One-One

Vonnegut: Cat's CradleThanks to the “academic malpractice” of SuperFreakonomics on the one hand and rising scientific concern that radical measures will have to be taken within decades to preserve human civilization on the other, talk about geoengineering to combat global warming is on the rise. One such project is Ice911, an unfortunately named scheme:

Ice911 is an engineering approach to reduce the melting of the ice. It is a solution that can be rapidly implemented. It has the potential to slow down the melt, provide interim mammal habitat, and perhaps even rebuild the ice.

The Ice911 is in fact a project to develop a low-tech method to increase the Arctic Ocean’s albedo in order to stop the feedback loop that is causing Arctic ice to melt at catastrophic rates, using millions of small, white floats. Although filling the world’s oceans with yet more plastic trash isn’t the most desirable rapid-cooling strategy, it sure beats options like those promoted in SuperFreakonomics, which have possible side effects like destroying the ozone layer. Ice911 has an impressive advisory board, and is led by Dr. Leslie Field, a world-class technologist.

However, the name Ice911 recalls “ice-nine,” a substance from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic science-fiction novel, Cat’s Cradle, one of the great parables of the “unintended consequences” of finding the “cheap and simple fix” to complex, global problems. As summarized at Technovelgy, “A general had a problem: mud. Marines have slogged their way through it for generations. Is it possible to get rid of mud? Without having to carry anything heavy? Marines already have enough to carry. Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an original thinker, found the ‘outside-the-box’ answer: a single crystal of Ice-Nine would crystallize every bit of water it touched”:

“…suppose, young man, that one Marine had with him a tiny capsule containing a seed of ice-nine, a new way for the atoms of water to stack and lock, to freeze. If that Marine threw that seed into the nearest puddle…?”
“The puddle would freeze?” I guessed.
“And all the muck around the puddle?”
“It would freeze?”
“And all the puddles in the frozen muck?”
“They would freeze?”
“And the pools and the streams in the frozen muck?”
“They would freeze?”
“You bet they would!” he cried. “And the United States Marines would rise from the swamp and march on!”

The book ends with the world’s water turned to ice-nine, the book’s fictional author one of the last remaining survivors of the human race, writing down his story as he prepares for his death. The fictional Felix Hoenikker, a “father of the Atomic Bomb,” recalls Dr. Edward Teller , the Manhattan Project physicist who later championed the Star Wars satellite laser system and in 1998 promoted a “Sunscreen for Planet Earth” — “solving” global warming through the injection of particles into the stratosphere, reviving an idea first proposed in 1979 as a thought experiment by fellow nuclear physicist (and now aging climate skeptic) Freeman Dyson. Teller’s protegé, Lowell Feld, has continued to champion Teller’s ideas and worldview at Nathan Myhrovld’s Intellectual Ventures, now promoted on bookshelves everywhere in SuperFreakonomics.

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