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Would pumping sea water inland to create lakes be a possible solution to sealevel rise due to global warming?

Posted by Charles II on August 19, 2015

Would pumping sea water inland to create lakes be a possible solution to sealevel rise due to global warming?

This is a question I asked Bill McKibben three years ago. He said he’d look into it. I never got an answer.

I think it would serve three purposes:

  1. it would lower the sea level. Each inch of rise will produce roughly 1 million refugees. Sea level rise could wipe out ports, reducing our manufacturing capacity. Railroads would also be impacted.
  2. it will cool continental interiors by evaporation, and increase rainfall. These are important because warming and drying in the continental interior reduces agricultural productivity, increases forest fires, and otherwise worsens our problems.
  3. it could help to recharge aquifers, and perhaps accelerate the cleansing of fracking pollution.
  4. it could be used to generate electricity.
  5. if the salt were returned to the ocean, it would prevent a drop in ocean salinity, which is itself a concern in sea level rise.

Now, it’s geo-engineering on a massive scale. Geo-engineering is inherently dangerous. Could aquifers be contaminated by salt water?

How much land area would it require?

Wouldn’t the energy costs of pumping water uphill be hugely expensive? Indeed, wouldn’t the whole thing be simply too expensive?

These aren’t easy questions. Certainly the right way to deal with global warming is to reduce carbon and methane emissions, reduce wasteful consumption, etc. But the death grip that the oil industry has on this country’s politics is so total, and the ideas of the corporate geoengineers are so crazy, that we have to be prepared with our own answers.

We simply can’t be told that things are too expensive. The annual costs of global warming are estimated to be 250B in 2025– and rising. We can afford anything we can imagine, if it will solve the problem.

We can’t be told that it would take too much energy. Global warming = having too much energy.  All that’s left is the technical problem of harnessing it.

We can’t be told that the lakes have to be below sea level as the Director of the Purdue Climate Change Center suggested. The Great Salt Lake is almost a mile high. Salt lakes can be above sea level. They just have to be contained. Not easy to do, but a technical problem.

Oh, and by the way–the underground water around the Great Salt Lake is just fine.

We can’t be told that it’s impossible to move that much water. Nature did it when it created the Totten Glacier. It’s merely a technical problem for us to copy her.

So, could such lakes be built?  The surface area of the earth is 200 million square miles. Oceans are roughly 70% of the earth. So, a 10 foot rise in sea level is 265,000 square miles of water. That represents a land area roughly 500 miles on a side. That’s about twice the size of the Gobi desert. So, we could build one lake half a mile deep.

If even that seems impractical, suppose we built the lake just 500 feet deep. That would be 2 feet of the 10 feet of sea level rise. And every inch is a million or more refugees and billions in damage. To stop that one inch would be a lake only about 5 feet deep.

Ironically, the Chinese are already doing it. An American atmospheric scientist envisions the rise of oceans as a potential goldmine in farming salicornia bigelovii. Or shrimp. Or other crops that love the ocean.

And yet when one raises the thought, in America, it’s shouted down, as it was on Eschaton, where I broached it. Or it vanishes into Bill McKibben’s e-mail folder.

It’s getting embarrassing to be an American, where “big ideas” means coming up with new ways to laugh at Donald Trump.

4 Responses to “Would pumping sea water inland to create lakes be a possible solution to sealevel rise due to global warming?”

  1. joel hanes said

    The lakes so created would
    – have to be in closed basins, so the salt wouldn’t kill existing fresh streams
    – continually increase in salinity until supersaturation and crystal formation,
    because the salt’s not going anywhere
    – be useful as an industrial source of sodium chloride
    – not be useful habitat, except for brine shrimp, brine flies, and seagulls.
    – have to be near the ocean, and not separated by high mountains.

    Maybe some basin in Nevada’s Basin and Range, with pumping energy from solar or wind or both.
    The best candidates might be self-identifying — I’d look for benched ice-age beaches in the basin walls.
    I think the energy cost of pumping sufficient water uphill is the toughest constraint.

    Isn’t the “Save the Salton Sea” scheme just this on a very small scale ?
    There should be public analyses of that one could use as a baseline.

    • Charles II said

      I don’t agree that it would have to be near an ocean. I agree with everything else.

      I don’t think the pumping is necessarily that difficult.The pipeline itself is a large surface that could be used for solar power.

      I think the salt must be returned to the sea to prevent a drop in salinity of the ocean over time. However, the saturation point of water is pretty high.

      tI haven’t seen a formal analysis. That’s what I want. And it’s not that complicated. I just don’t want to take the time and effory.

  2. I like this idea a lot.

    As for the idea that we’d have to put some or all of the salt back into the ocean: Apparently there are problems with simply dumping the salt back into the ocean; that’s been a key objection to solving California’s drought through use of desalinized seawater. (Though I suspect there are ways around it and that a lot of the objectors are simply modern-day semi-secular Calvinists who want us all to suffer for having followed what they see as the false gods of materialism and science; the idea that science could find ways around this is a contravention of their theology.)

    Be careful of how you pull it out, use solar to power the process, and be careful of how you return the salt. That’s basically it.

    • Charles II said

      Yes. The return of a high-salinity stream is already a problem in the Gulf State desalinators.

      It’s an interesting enough issue that I’ll do a post on it.

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