Engineering the ocean

Once you know what plankton can do, you’ll understand why fertilising the ocean with iron is not such a crazy idea

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The Southern Ocean is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. Photo by Doug Allan/Stone/Getty

The Southern Ocean is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. Photo by Doug Allan/Stone/Getty

David Biello is the environment and energy editor at Scientific American. He is writing a book about the Anthropocene and lives in New York.

‘Call me Victor,’ says the mustachioed scientist as he picks me up from the airport on a brisk, fall afternoon in Germany. Victor Smetacek is an esteemed marine biologist, but he’s decided to spend his golden years on an ambitious new pursuit. He has devised a plan to alter the mix of gases in Earth’s atmosphere, in order to ward off climate change. He is, in other words, an aspiring geoengineer.

I came to the ancient city of Bremen to ask Smetacek about an extraordinary experiment he performed more than half the world away, in a forbidding sea seldom visited by humans. This sea surrounds the vast, white continent of Antarctica with a chilly current, locking it in a deep freeze. This encircling moat reaches from the surface waters to the ocean bottom, spanning thousands of kilometres. It is known as the Southern Ocean and it is famously dangerous on account of icebergs that hide in the gloom that hovers above its surface. The churn of its swells sometimes serves up freak waves that tower so high they can flip ships over in a single go. It is in this violent, lashing place that Smetacek hopes to transform Earth’s atmosphere.

Since the 1980s, Smetacek has taken regular expeditions from his home port of Bremerhaven to the Southern Ocean aboard the sturdy icebreaker Polarstern. He goes to study the plankton that fill the sea from top to bottom, extending even into the sediments of the sea floor. Plankton is our planet’s most prolific life form, and the food it generates makes up the base layer of the global food chain. The variety of shapes among plankton species shames plants on land, showing more range in size than the difference between moss and redwood trees. There are more plankton cells in the sea than our current count of stars in the entire universe. Indeed, it is precisely this abundance that leads Smetacek to suspect that plankton could be used to change Earth’s environment.

That these tiny creatures could affect such massive change is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one species of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus. This species was not even discovered until the 1980s: it is so tiny that millions can fit into a single drop of water and no one had produced a sieve small enough to catch it. The oxygen made by these tiny marine plants dwarfs that produced by the Amazon rainforest and the rest of the world’s woodlands combined. By taking in CO2 and exhaling oxygen, these tiny creatures serve as the planet’s lungs, whose steady breathing is limited only by nutrition. Just as land plants need nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements to thrive, missing nutrients restrain planktons’ growth. Add enough of those missing elements – via dust blown off a continent or fertiliser run-off from farm fields – and the oceans will produce blooms that can be seen from space.

Many of these plankton pastures are held back by iron shortages, especially in places that are largely cut off from continental dust and dirt. With access to more iron, the plankton would proliferate and siphon more and more planet-heating CO2 from the atmosphere. Back in 1988, the late John Martin, then an oceanographer at the Moss Landing Marine Observatory, said: ‘Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.’

As recently as 2012, the independent would-be geoengineer Russ George attempted to test this theory off the coast of British Columbia, as a follow-up to a fertilising cruise he took in 2002 in a wooden schooner borrowed from the rock legend Neil Young. A bearded, bespectacled little bear of a man who once tried to sell cold-fusion devices, George describes himself as a forest ecologist. But he has spent the past decade trying to commercialise iron fertilisation, most notoriously as part of the now defunct US company Planktos. After that effort was shut down by government and environmentalist outcry, he tried a new tack in the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia in 2012. Pitched and funded as an effort to boost salmon runs relied upon by native tribes, George tried to use iron to goose the plankton blooms in the North Pacific, hoping that the gains would trickle up the food chain.

George’s efforts to make money from ocean fertilisation have tainted iron fertilisation, and geoengineering more generally. And that’s a shame, because iron fertilisation could potentially sequester as much as 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, and keep it deep in the ocean for centuries. That is slightly more than the CO2 output of the German economy, and roughly one-eighth of humanity’s entire greenhouse gas output.

In 2004, Smecatek set out to prove the planet-transforming power of plankton with a trio of research cruises to the Southern Ocean. Though we tend to think of ourselves as the only species that can manipulate the environment on a large scale, plankton and their ancestors were the first geoengineers. Some 2.4 billion years ago, photosynthetic bacteria began bubbling out vast quantities of oxygen, becoming the planet’s key source of the gas, a title they have never relinquished. Understanding this fundamental planetary cycle means travelling to the Southern Ocean, where plankton still rule uncontested. But the Southern Ocean is, in the words of Smetacek, ‘one of the least attractive places for human beings on Earth’.

Using an iron sulphate produced as a waste product and sold as a lawn treatment by a titanium production plant back in Germany, Smetacek and his colleagues planned to supply the plankton with the missing nutrient they needed. Fertilising the waters could promote blooms that help sea life thrive all the way up the food chain, even to whale populations, which are still recovering from overhunting. And, more importantly, the uneaten plankton could suck out CO2 from the air until they die and sink to the sea floor, burying the carbon with them. Smetacek’s ship, the Polarstern, and her six decks, several cranes and 20,000 horsepower-worth of ice-smashing thrust is, of course, made of iron, and her passage sheds tiny traces of the vital nutrient. But it is the iron dumped in her propeller wash that makes the real difference, raising iron concentrations in the surrounding seas by 0.01 grammes per square meter.

The hard part is proving that this audacious plan would work. After all, ocean waters tend to mix, diluting away any iron additions to levels too minute to be measured by human science. Smetacek’s solution was to fertilise a self-contained swirl of water that can maintain its shape for weeks or even months. These eddies form when the fast currents of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current meander into loops that detach and continue to spin until they finally slow and dissipate into the surrounding waters. On 21 January 2004, RV Polarstern steamed her way from Cape Town, with Smetacek aboard as chief scientist, to a rendezvous with the latitudes known as the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, where the waves are powerful enough to form the eddies needed for his experiment.

Research vessel R.V. Polarstern anchored in sea-ice. Photo courtesy Alfred Wegener Institute. Research vessel R.V. Polarstern anchored in sea-ice. Photo courtesy Alfred Wegener Institute.

On 13 February 2004, Polarstern’s crew finally (and skillfully) brought the ship to the centre of a suitable eddy and dropped a buoy. The scientists had to wear plastic coveralls and gas masks in order to safely mix the irritating iron sulphate powder with local seawater. Using a funnel, they dumped the solution into the Polarstern’s tanks to be stirred, and then slowly circled out from the buoy at the eddy’s centre. Making their way out of the eddy one lap at a time, Smetacek and his team spewed seven metric tons of the ferrous solution in the ship’s propeller wash. As the ship ‘ploughed’ the water it left a rusty red wake, which transformed into a murky green mass that expanded slowly outward through the eddy. By Friday morning, it had covered some 167 square kilometres of sea.

We have the blueprints for a man-made portal for our pollution, a column of plankton running between the atmosphere and the deep ocean

Smetacek and his colleagues settled in for several weeks – dodging the occasional roaring storm – to monitor the fate of their bloom. ‘We have [moved] from the uncertainties of the hunter, full of apprehension as to what the next bend of the front will reveal,’ Smetacek wrote in a progress report, ‘to the fatalistic patience of the farmer, watching the crop develop in the painstakingly selected field.’ As the scientists watched, Chaetoceros atlanticus, Corethron pennatum, Thalassiothrix antarcticus and nine other fantastically named species of diatoms bloomed down to depths of as much as 100 metres over the course of two weeks. By the middle of the third week, the bloom began to die in large enough numbers to overwhelm natural systems of decay. As a result, these drifting corpses fell like snow, to depths of 500 metres. About half of them continued on even further, sinking more than 3,000 metres, to the sea floor itself.

Smetacek’s experiment was a success. For two weeks, he was able to induce carbon to fall to the sea floor at the highest rate ever observed – some 34 times faster than normal. Just as marine and terrestrial plants sucked up CO2 from Carboniferous or Jurassic skies only to be buried and cooked with geologic heat and pressure into coal, gas and oil, these modern microbes helped pull back some of the CO2 released when we burned their ancestors to make electricity, or to propel hulks of metal over tarred roads. This marine tinkering could help buffer the ever-increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, concentrations that have touched 400 parts-per-million, levels never before experienced in the hundreds of thousands of years that our clever species, Homo sapiens, has existed. Smetacek has given us the blueprints for a man-made portal for our pollution, a column of plankton running between the atmosphere and the deep ocean.

And yet, environmentalists – the very people who care the most about climate change – were outraged by Smetacek’s project, and tried hard to stop it. A subsequent research cruise in 2009 was held up by international outcry before being permitted to execute a limited follow-up study. Environmental activists stoked fears about unknown side effects. Some worried the iron could lead to a toxic algal bloom, like those that have poisoned sea lions and other sea life off the coast of California. Others floated the possibility that the experiment could lead to a dead zone, like the one created each summer by the algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico, where the fertilisers that support Midwestern cornfields gush out of the Mississippi river’s mouth and into the ocean. When that algae dies, other microbes consume the corpses, using up all the available oxygen in the surrounding waters. When the oxygen shortages hit, fish flee, but slower-moving sea life such as crabs and worms suffocate and die in droves.

In the wake of Russ George’s rogue geoengineering in 2002, the world’s governments agreed via the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in May 2008 that iron fertilisation should be forbidden ‘until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities’.

But Smetacek’s research cruise already demonstrated that iron fertilisation works, and the science behind it has been vetted and published in the journal Nature, as recently as 2012. Despite this progress, there have been no scientific research cruises since 2009, and there are none planned for the future. At the very moment it revealed its promise, the white whale of iron fertilisation seems to have slipped under the waves anew.

Back in Bremen, Smetacek told me that commerce might be the only way to motivate further research into iron fertilisation. Replenishing missing krill, and the whales it supports, could be the best route to broader acceptance of the practice. ‘There’s no point in hanging on to things or saying: “It used to be like this.” That’s changed anyway,’ Smetacek said. ‘We’ve changed everything.’

This is the kind of expansive thinking that’s required here at the dawn of the Anthropocene. The ocean is no longer a vast, unknowable wilderness, whose mysterious gods must be placated before it can be crossed. Instead, it’s become the first viable arena for large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment. A land animal has come to tame the heaving, alien world of the sea and, though doing so can make us uncomfortable, in the end it might undo a great deal of the damage we have already done.

Daily Weekly

Read more essays on ecology and environment and geo-engineering

Comments

  • Lester

    No matter how seductive geo-engineering may appear, we have never exhibited the capacity to fully predict complex externalities, even in systems we do understand. Nor have we been able think outside whatever paradigm rules political and economic bureaucracies.

    In fact these two problems perfectly explain why we have reached such a dangerous place where we need to dream up fantasies like geo-engineering in the first place.

    • ObamaTheNewNixon

      we need to dream up fantasies like geo-engineering in the first place.
      Because liberals, Democrats need your money

      • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

        Just dreadful. What would your Mother think of a comment like this?

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    • geraldine

      If you truly think that geo-engineering is a fantasy that could never work, why bother to comment?

      • Lester

        Mmmm. Indeed, why bother to do anything.

        But of course dialogue is better than no dialogue, better to point out the folly in our behaviour than

        • geraldine

          What dialogue? You haven't provided a specific criticism of the ideas presented in the article. Only a puritanical and blanket condemnation of mankind.

          What behaviour? There is no behaviour! By condemning *ideas* that actually address a problem, without making the effort to take them seriously, you are acting from a position of ignorance, the very thing you condemn.

          • Lester

            The reality of my observations about our difficulty in understanding and predicting complex outcomes is not a blanket criticism of mankind, but a clear and specific point. At any point in scientific discovery we can never know the amount or relevance of the information gathered to predict with any certainty any given outcome. This is not a peculiar admission in science. Unless one uses science as a legitimating tool to proceed with any nonsense you can dream up.

            I've noticed that defence if geo-engineering takes a pretty standard tact by accusing non geo-engineering folk of being anti progress or anti science. Highly ironical considering the political support for sticking a massive oar into the environment is based on keeping a status quo and keeping ones fingers crossed.

          • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

            Yep ... refer the brilliant idea of introducing cane toad frogs into Australia to control the native grey-backed cane beetle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toads_in_Australia and the introduction of Australian wattle into the Western Cape South Africa as raw material for tanning it's now invasive.

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          • SocraticGadfly

            Hasn't deliberately engineering our planet through deliberate introduction of invasive species taught us how clueless we are at things like this? Obviously not. Nor has it taught any humility, as too many techie types believe in "salvific technologism," as I call it on my blog. This is why Net 2.0 right-neolibs, and outright libertarians, are all climate change minimizers. They believe technology will always be the cavalry riding over the hill with salvation. That's why it's an "-ism."

      • SocraticGadfly

        To stop us from going down a huge road of folly in trying it! Duh.

  • odo

    What is the optimum level of CO2 for plant growth?

    • Jay Caplan

      1000 ppm

      • odo

        But there would be nowhere for plants to grow at that level.

        • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

          Please elaborate?

          • odo

            According to settled science, there would be much less land and it would be too hot. So, while plants may be adapted to 1000ppm there would be extremely restricted space for them. Thus 1000ppm cannot be oprimal for plant growth on earth, although it may be optimal in a greenhouse.

          • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

            But this is in the ocean, so your argument is in support of Plankton stimulation? (Thank you for elaborating btw)

          • odo

            So, what is the optimum level of CO2 that is being aimed at?

          • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

            I'm not sure but can try to look later when not at work.

          • odo

            You don't know, but you seem certain that the optimum is very different from what it is now or what it will be without geoengineering.

          • hoodoo__operator

            You're moving the goalposts around. First you say optimal for plant growth (which would be a very high level) but that's not optimal for humans from a climate perspective. In that case, aiming for a pre-industrial concentration of around 275 ppm seems like a good idea, although maybe not realistic. Either way, we know that increased amounts of greenhouse gasses increase the average global temperature, and we know that an increase in the average global temperature is not desirable, so it makes sense to want to reduce the levels of greenhouse gasses.

          • Joe Blow

            Why is the increase of global temperature not desirable? More warmth and more CO2 both mean more plants/food. Warmer weather means less human (and animal) suffering. Would you rather live during the Little Ice Age or during the Roman Warm Period?

          • Richard Reiss

            Short answer: crops collapse above about 92°f, as shown here
            http://youtu.be/Z_-8u86R3Yc?t=16m59s

  • HughdePayens

    This is crazy stupid...the hubris displayed is just mindboggling. Given that cold is ALOT more dangerous than hot how about we step back for a few moments, decades, and simply get a better handle on understanding how little we know about predicting climate.

    • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

      Should we keep using fossil fuels for those couple of decades too?

      • HughdePayens

        Of course! Why should we stop using fossil fuels? This entire "sky is falling" scenario is being brought to you by folks who don't mind breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. They don't care if millions of people cannot afford energy as long as they feel good about themselves and they feel like something in their worthless lives means something. Those millions of people not being able to afford cheap/reliable energy means nothing to these "do gooders" the only thing that is important is that they feel worthwhile. These controlling punks won't even hear the screams of anguish as the poor die from starvation and sickness...all they will hear is the clucking approval from the others in their circles of hell.

        • Joe Blow

          And don't forget the millions who will starve or die from disease because GMOs are "unnatural" and must be banned, along with DDT.

  • ObamaTheNewNixon

    They need more tax money. Liberals and so call science wants your money today

    • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

      Do you get paid to troll or does it come with an ironic twist?

      • Belisarius85

        When so-called environmentalists try to shut down some of the most promising avenues for climate change mitigation, you have to wonder what their motivation is.
        For many of them, I suspect it's more about enforcing their views upon the rest of society than about actually helping the environment.

  • sokeeffe

    Einstein's famous words: "You can't solve the problem with the same thinking that created it." Thinking we can engineer our way out of this mess is the same old thinking that got us into it in the first place...man as master of nature, man as separate from nature, nature as something made of "things" we manage, control, use...The oceans, like the rest of the larger life community, doesn't need more of our tinkering, it needs us to wake up to the fact that we have to change our ways.

    • http://developer.samsung.com/ Ben Davolls

      All new solutions need to fit in with the existing structure to even be considered. It's all right sitting there saying it's the A bomb in a war but have you ever tried broaching a completely new idea to a group of politicians and pressure groups? Everyone has their own problems already

    • Joe Blow

      Man IS master of nature. Who else is? Bambi? Gia? You claim we have the power to change the climate without even trying to, but there is no way we could FIX a problem on purpose? Do you really have that low an opinion of your fellow humans? How do you continue to live, knowing that you are a member of such a horrible species? You know, the species who has increased its own life expectancy by 400%, who has harnessed the power of the atom, who has peered back in time to almost the beginning of the universe, etc. Of course we have done damage, we have also done great things. And yes, simply because we are the only ones here with the ability to claim it, the Earth IS ours to with as we want. Obviously the wise thing to do is to try to manage it wisely, but that is not what the environmentalists want. They despise any mark of man on this planet, and would not even be happy with a stone age hominid, because, you know, mammoth hunts and stuff.

      • Diogenes60025

        That's hubris. Nature is the master of itself.

    • BoringCommenter

      It practically goes without saying, but that's a bogus Einstein quote: That particular one seems to come from Ram Dass, the 1970s hippy guru. look here and search for "problems cannot be solved"

      http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein#Unsourced_and_dubious.2Foverly_modern_sources

  • Ocean Minds

    The Anthropocene is a state of awareness of the effect of humans on the planet, not an invitation for humans to rule and manipulate nature. I still see geoegineering as the atomic bomb to stop a war. Sure it may stop climate change but at what cost and what about the collateral damage? There are a lot of alternatives to drastic moves like geoingineering, but they require a lot more discipline and investment on our parts.

    • Belisarius85

      Quite frankly, you aren't going to get the discipline and investment that you want until it's too late.

      Even if you could get the US and Europe to immediately go green and have absolutely no carbon footprint, it isn't going to be enough because of the growth of the developing world.

      That means we're going to have to use some form of geo-engineering if we want to stave off the worst effects of AGW. Fear geo-engineering all you want and compare it to an atomic bomb, but it can be done with due diligence and have a huge positive impact.

    • Joe Blow

      The one time an atomic bomb was used in anger, it did stop a war, and probably saved thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of lives doing so. So that's a pretty weak argument, other than emotionally, because "nukes bad".

      And when you say "There are a lot of alternatives to drastic moves like geoingineering, but they require a lot more discipline and investment on our parts" what you really mean is that some 90% of mankind should die, or at least live in abject poverty. Not you of course; because of your obvious superiority, YOU deserve to be part of the 10%, enjoying your IPod, air conditioning, modern medicine, and cheap energy.

  • Roland

    This article mentions the Haida Gwai experiment, but doesn't mention that it was a success!
    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/376258/pacifics-salmon-are-back-thank-human-ingenuity-robert-zubrin
    But the bureaucrats still have their knickers in a twist:
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/haida-gwaii-ocean-iron-dump-investigation-to-proceed-1.2523649

    • Hugh Conrad

      So succesful that the tribe fired Russ George!

  • Belisarius85

    I consider myself to be a quasi-environmentalist, and that quasi prefix is there because of the response to this experiment.

    Does iron fertilization need to be more thoroughly studied to ensure that there aren't harmful ecological effects? Absolutely. Does that mean we should completely stop such activities (and the knowledge gained by studying it's effects)? Absolutely not.

    It has the potential to help mitigate the effects of AGW. But environmentalists hate it either out of fear of the unknown (in which case they are cowards), or because they'd just greatly prefer to keep their AGW cudgel to force their beliefs down everyone else's throats.

  • Tom Ferrell

    The idea of mankind maintaining a particular level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is geoengineering on a epic scale. All objections to geoengineering the ocean should apply to geoengineering the atmosphere. If we are confident enough to act on climate change science based on computer models without fear of unanticipated side effects, shouldn't we be open to ocean science based on similar computer models? What this contradiction exposes is the willingness of some environmentalsits to demand higher scientific standards on things not conforming to their beliefs, emotions, or politics while excusing the lower standards for those things that do conform.

    • Joe Blow

      I think you hit the target with the word "emotion". The days of rational environmentalism, if they ever existed, are long gone. We are told that burning fossil fuels represents an existential danger, yet the only realistic alternative energy is taken off the table, because nuclear power just "feels" dangerous, historical records be damned. GMOs could end world hunger and all the vast amounts of disease and suffering caused by dietary deficiencies, but they "feel" unnatural, so they must not be used. On and on, the modern environmentalist shows he cares less for his fellow man than he does for a mythical natural world devoid of man, where no doubt the lion lies down with the lamb, rather than killing it remorselessly for dinner. The science is settled, it just says different things from one era to the next, but the bottom line is always that man is fallen, and is destroying an otherwise idyllic Eden. Our science can accidentally cause havoc, but may never be trusted to purposely do good.
      Modern Environmentalism, in short, is a sophomoric philosophy whose disciples never need to use logic nor consult empiricism, because the goddess Gia speaks directly to their hearts.

      And for evidence, I merely direct the reader to the many comments on this thread who say exactly what I just did, only do so proudly, claiming man has no chance of fixing the problem, and no business trying.

      • Axe Skot

        "YOU deserve to be part of the 10%, enjoying your IPod, air conditioning, modern medicine, and cheap energy."

        "Modern Environmentalism, in short, is a sophomoric philosophy whose disciples never need to use logic nor consult empiricism, because the goddess Gia speaks directly to their hearts."

        Sorry, and not to say that I agree or disagree with some or any of your points, but I don't think you are immune to emotion in this either. I am sick of all of the trench lines associated with labels like environmentalist, conservative, liberal. Everyone is an expert, none are in agreement. This is the true mark of the information age and the source of so much frustration on all sides. There is no collective trust in any body or authority or group (I'm not necessarily criticizing that fact). What is needed more than anything is for all of the various interests to step aside and let real science come forth. The facts regarding the habitability of the earth based upon its resources and its climate will reveal itself in stages, let us hope that there will be enough time and the will to act appropriately.

      • Diogenes60025

        Please--Hands off the oceans! The Hippocratic oath begins with, "First do no harm." The (non) "problem" will "fix" itself.

        Only 3.4% of total CO2 emissions arise from human activities. CO2 has no material effect on climate. CO2 is in long-term equilibrium. The ultimate reservoir of CO2 is limestone and other carbonate rocks. Oceans absorb CO2 and convert it to carbonate rock.

        The earth is supposed to be warming, because we are in an interglacial period. That's good, because the natural equilibrium of earth is a glacial state. Our present weather is pleasant and productive and I hope it continues to warm. But it's not because of human fossil fuels use.

    • bhaskarmv

      "The idea of mankind maintaining a particular level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is geoengineering on a epic scale."

      Not really, the idea is that we recycle everything including CO2 from the fuel we burn and Nitrogen and Phosphate in the food that we eat.

      Nature recycles, that is why life on Earth has lasted 3,500 million years.
      Humans evolved about 200,000 years ago, how long can we last without recycling.

      Total CO2 in atmosphere is about 800 billion tons of C.
      Annual consumption of C due to photosynthesis is about 100 billion tons of C. So all the CO2 in the atmosphere is being replaced in about 8 years due to photosynthesis. This recycling has been going on for about 3,500 million years.

  • Fthoma

    Strangely enough no one except one mentioned that the increased plankton concentration would vastly increase the available protein in the ocean via vast increases in fish population, all to our benefit. The Canadian Indian experiment increased the salmon population enormously. Yet, we have the same greenies whining about overfishing when mitigation is well in hand.

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com/ The Sanity Inspector

    George’s efforts to make money from ocean fertilisation have tainted iron fertilisation, and geoengineering more generally.

    Why? No one is going to make these kinds of innovations if they are not allowed to get and keep the fruits of their labors.

  • windygapper

    I tell you what - I'm one of a lot of folks who have been trying to get people to understand the gravity of this situation for the past couple of decades. So on the one hand, is good to see that people are finally starting to talk about it, but on the other, my god, it's a pretty shallow conversation. Personally, I think we're screwed. I hope there is some sort of geo-engineering miracle because clearly we're not going to stop burning fossil fuels any time soon (though alternative energy is booming, so that is hopeful). But we are truly delusional if we believe this or any of the current ideas are anywhere near feasibility, that's not even talking about the unexpected consequences that will necessarily be massive.
    So appreciatie what we have now, folks, and hope for a miracle.

  • Sarah

    Why glorify the idea that man is supposed to be able to control or manipulate the ocean? Is that really our responsibility? Anthropomorphism is ridiculous; how comfortable would you feel if another species decided to disrupt an entire ecosystem to better themselves alone? The idea is based in western capitalist neoliberalism and it sickens me. Rather than perpetuate the problem of carbon emissions, should we not seek way to reduce our human centric practices of waste? By increasing the amount of plankton in the ocean the consequences of dead zones in particular or other grander more complex effects could occur. If we start removing the surplus carbon from the air via plankton, what is to stop us from continuing the wasteful practices that maintain the domination of the wealthy few over the masses. This solution is no revolution but a bolstering of the patriarchy. A patriarchy that promotes the will of man, of his wealth and his perception of time. We are not the only beings alive and effecting this planet and we need to respect that. We have the responsibility to engage with the world but not treat it as a practice mat for "large scale manipulation." Maybe we should stop being so selfish and change how are already dominating the planetary ecosystem rather then ponder up new ways we can "control it" and ultimately get more of our hair caught in the fan.

    • http://napomartin.wordpress.com Napo Martin

      I tend to agree with you, yet we can reasonably think that there is too much CO2 in the air already, and that even if we were able to stop generating more, the planet could not cope with it. This would mean that in parallel to generating less carbon dioxide, we would still need to find a solution as to the pollution already here.

      Perhaps bioengineering is not the solution, but it is an idea that can be explored. We are not going to come up with the solution when it will be too late, and the solution might take years or decades to implement.

      To your (later) comment, it is very valid, and I fully agree: we cannot pretend to know everything and all of the consequences, therefore, bioengineers such as Mr. Smetacek should first think about how to test their theories at a smaller scale.

      Rather than blame someone else for not letting them run full scale trials. Because yes: we do not know the side effects.

      Perhaps they do, but the article does not cover this, and is biased.

    • bhaskarmv

      "By increasing the amount of plankton in the ocean the consequences of dead zones in particular or other grander more complex effects could occur."

      Phytoplankton consume CO2 an produce O2, so why do algal blooms cause dead zones ?

  • Joan

    So we scale up fertilizing and then who pays for the unintended consequences? What we may be learning about physical oceanography, geochemistry and marine life pale next to what we don't know about Earth's deeper dynamics. Let's remember how much we don't know before we run wild with illusions that we're in control. Please.....

    "The ocean is no longer a vast, unknowable wilderness...." you expect me to agree with that?

    • bhaskarmv

      What if we can fertilize without unintended consequences ?
      Farmers fertilize and grow crops successfully and there is enough food for 7 billion. Why can't something similar be done in oceans ?

  • bhaskarmv

    "Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one species of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus."

    This statement may be incorrect. If Cyanobacteria are net oxygen producers why do algal blooms of Cyano result in dead zones, in estuaries and coastal waters ?

    Cyanobacteria are generally not consumed by zooplankton, so they die and decompose, the bacteria that decomposes Cyanobacteria consume the oxygen produced, so there is no net oxygen production.

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  • Eric Moore

    Getting plankton to grow and getting dead plankton to be buried in sediments at the bottom of the ocean are two completely separate things. Unless someone is able to accomplish both, they are not achieving any real reduction in CO2. The problem is that in the places where iron fertilization has a large effect on productivity are not conducive to burial and vice-versa.

    The seafloor beneath most areas of the open ocean is well oxygenated to a considerable depth within the sediment. This means that buried plankton will be oxidized and their carbon will be released back into seawater and eventually the atmosphere as CO2. I suppose it's possible that if enough plankton were buried fast enough, it could exceed the available oxygen, but this would by definition be creating oxygen-fee dead zones.

    The areas where seafloor conditions are conducive to the burial of organic material tend to be located along the continents where sediment accumulates at a sufficient rate to bury organic matter before it can be completely re-oxidized. But these continental areas are not nutrient-limited in the way that the open ocean is and iron fertilization would not have as great of an effect on productivity.

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  • Hugh Conrad

    So this geo-engineering of the ocean is just another scam by scientists to get funding? Will the House hold hearings soon?

  • Shikaboomboom

    Iron fertilization doesn't necessarily work that well. Most of the carbon doesn't drop to the depths like it does in the laboratory, and if it does, it doesn't stay for long. More experimentation is needed, perhaps we're barking up the right tree, but we're not there yet. http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/will-ocean-iron-fertilization-work

  • SocraticGadfly

    No! Hasn't deliberately engineering our planet through deliberate introduction of invasive species taught us how clueless we are at things like this? Obviously not. Nor has it taught any humility, as too many techie types believe in "salvific technologism," as I call it on my blog. This is why Net 2.0 right-neolibs, and outright libertarians, are all climate change minimizers. They believe technology will always be the cavalry riding over the hill with salvation. That's why it's an "-ism."

  • Eric Moore

    Thanks for saying so, Ann. I have to confess that we've already reached the end of my knowledge about this, though. If you're looking for items to back up your case I would suggest looking into the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. They've been conducting research all around the world's oceans for almost 50 years, first as the Deep Sea Drilling Program, then as the Ocean Drilling Program and now as IODP. I'm sure their website would tout the benefits of non-military exploration.