BC Iron Fertilization: Science Experiment, Business Opportunity, or Uncontrolled Geoengineering?

News outlets around the world are buzzing with evidence of a recent attempt to fertilize the ocean off the BC coast with iron pushed by a US businessman and funded in part by a group called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation.

Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme.

Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA

The driving force behind the project, Russ George, is notorious in oceanography circles for the company Planktos, which tried and thus far has failed, to create a carbon credit business out of fertilizing the ocean with iron. The current project is like a bad movie script, complete with the a maverick businessman, international treaties, global environmental challenges, local environment costs, possible exploitation of innocent people, you name it.

From what I have learned so far, it looks like the only redeeming thing out of this event is it will give my biogeochemistry class something to discuss next week. I’ll tackle my two science-based concerns, then discuss the two broader issues:

The science of fertilization 

Iron is limiting to algae growth in much of the open ocean, which means if you add iron to the ocean, algae will uptake more carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. However, creating a plankton bloom does not necessarily permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. For that, the organic carbon produced through photosynthesis needs to be sequestered in a some reservoir which, unlike algae or most plants, has a long-life time (otherwise, it could decompose and be returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide).

If you were trying to sequester carbon by fertilizing a grassland, the key would be getting that the organic carbon produced by the grasses into the deep soil, where it will stay for a reasonably long time. In the ocean, the organic carbon needs to be exported to the deep ocean, and stay there, ideally getting buried sediments. There it could conceivably remain for thousands of years, rather than returning to the atmosphere. So you need to track the sinking of carbon from the surface, through dead plankton, fecal pellets of things that eat plankton, etc. And, yes, I wrote fecal. If you want to do biogeochemistry, you do have to talk about feces, it is one of the most important mechanisms through which the planet recycles key nutrients.

The key question then is not “How big is plankton bloom?”, but “How much carbon was exported into the deep ocean?”. This has been the subject of a huge amount of research in the past 20 years. The scientists quoted in the news articles are extremely critical because they know iron fertilization is very complicated. This group does appear to be doing a suite of follow-up measurements, the details of which I do not. Without a huge investment in such measurements over very long periods of time – and I mean months to years, not days to weeks – it would be hard to take this project seriously.

The ancillary benefits 

One of project rationales appears to be that it might help the local ocean and ideally the salmon fishery. To use a popular word, this is a bunch of mularkey.  I’m not an expert on salmon, and I can’t speak to the specific details of marine ecology off Haida Gwaii. The NW Pacific Ocean is not enclosed fish farm where adding some fertilizer means more algae for the fish to eat and thus more or bigger fish. In an open system with complex ecology, the long-term effect of the bloom on the fishery is highly uncertain.

The supposed salmon connection strikes me as a marketing cover story. It’s no secret that the proprietor of Planktos who set up this organization with the Haida has been trying for years to create an business selling carbon credits or offsets through iron fertilization of the ocean. Even the current incarnation with the Haida has a clear carbon credit aim. The web-site lists a “sea” and “trees” side to the business. The trees side is directed towards forest restoration, clearly with the goals selling carbon credits for protecting or restoring the old growth in the region. Salmon is king here in B.C., slapping ‘salmon restoration’ onto a project gives it an air of nobility.

The media coverage has done a decent job representing these points about geo-engineering and marine ecology, thanks in part to the outrage among scientific experts who have been quoted. I’ll close with a two non-scientific aspects of the coverage which I found a bit troubling:

The role of the Haida

Every story I’ve seen mentioned the possibility that Russ George is “taking advantage of the Haida”. This claim may be well intentioned. Unfortunately, it is also rather paternalistic. It plays into some very old-fashioned racial assumptions, implying that the first nations people were bamboozled by some white man with money and fancy ideas. It may just be that the local people chose to be involved, not out of ignorance, but out of an understanding of the potential financial benefits of setting up a carbon offset business.

Is this geo-engineering?

Michael Tobis raises this important point. The existing geo-engineering treaty is non-binding, meaning the language in the treaty is aspirational and there are no penalties to ignoring the proposed ban on geo-engineering projects.

But we need to ask a broader question. If there were a legally-binding international ban on geo-engineering, would this stunt count? If every one-off dump of iron filings into the oceans counts as geo-engineering, shouldn’t every tree planting project?

Definitions will really matter here. A binding treaty would need to set some minimum climate or carbon impact on projects, otherwise a lot of what people and companies do as a part of their everyday business will count at geoengineering. We need to, er, see the forest for the trees. A geo-engineering treaty should be there to control against dangerous large-scale experiments, like reducing the incoming solar radiation, not every carbon sequestration effort.

Given this last point, I think if we are to prosecute the organizers of this stunt off Haida Gwaii, it should be for the marine pollution, like an oil spill, rather than the attempt at geoengineering.

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Via Simon’s Maribo Blog

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UPDATE: The story makes The Times
UPDATE: National Geographic weighs in, going with “waste dumping“.
UPDATE: As it Happens on CBC Radio One has three segments on the story.
UPDATE: Quirks and Quarks also did a great segment with Dr. Kenneth Coale of Moss Landing Marine Labs on iron fertilization.

Comments:

  1. Simple biochem question: what is the effect of using algae as fertilizer? The point of fertilizer is the N and P that it introduces in the soil, but I have no idea if it has any effect on CO2 absorbtion or production.

    • Not sure what the import of the question is.

      The details are far from my expertise; I don't know that our P3 community has attracted any agronomists or soil scientists as yet.

      Let me take a swing at it. From the geochemistry point of view, at a frist pass algae fix carbon from the air like any plant. Using it as fertilizer moves carbon from the air to the soil. These are both parts of the "fast reservoirs", so the carbon would participate in exchanges with the air. Thus it is quite precisely neutral.

      As a second pass, you could argue that perhaps this would make the path from air to ground slightly more effective than the path from ground to air, and might therefore constitute a modest sequestration. I'm pretty sure this isn't big enough to have a global impact. Whether such a transition would be large enough for sequestration credits (if we ever get that far) is beyond my expertise. I expect not because it is essentially reversible. This is related to the biochar question, and to the half-reasonable point among Freeman Dyson's doddering. If we could actually construct fertile soil without significant energy input, that would be a fine means of carbon sequestration. But it turns out we have to construct a fairly ridiculous amount of it; the potential sink is probably limited.

      If anyone knows better, please correct me.

      • The import is purely tangential. I had come across mention of algae as an energy-efficient way of making fertilizer, and I was wondering about its CO2 implications.


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