An Argument In Defense of Russ George’s Geoengineering Experiment

Via Stoat, an amazing rant that sheds some light on our quandary, from Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watt’s blog:

Proximately, the gambit seems to have paid off: the resulting bloom covered ten thousand square kilometers and greatly exceeds the penny-ante impact of more “legitimate” experiments. Whether it will actually increase salmon yield remains an open question, but it seems a reasonable expectation; the project was inspired by a paper in Fisheries Oceanography which connected the dots between volcanic ash-fall, diatom blooms, and record salmon catches. As to the potential long-term carbon-sequestration impact, nobody knows.

In fact, not only does nobody know, nobody even seems to give a shit. They’re too busy pointing fingers. Discovery News regards Russ George, the entrepreneur behind the project, as a “Geoengineering nut“. David Suzuki decries the effort as “stupid”. Scientists and lawyers fill endless column inches with quotes about bad experimental design and the breaking of international treaties. The UN is gravely concerned, and has granted the Harper government an actual award (“The Dodo”) for its role in this fiasco; the Harper government, those champions of the environment, has in turn condemned the entire affair and is “investigating” (although their misgivings have been a bit muted by credible reports that they knew about the project in advance and did nothing to stop it, which makes them complicit).

In terms of environmental damage, however, I can’t help noticing that right around the corner from Haida Gwaii, the city of Victoria BC flushes the raw sewage of eighty thousand people directly into the ocean. I can’t help noticing a thousand-square kilometer dead zone off the Oregon coast, or the seventeen-thousand-square-kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the continent-long daisy-chain of dead zones skipping merrily up the eastern seaboard. If I squint hard enough I can just barely keep myself from noticing the salmon farms along our coasts that not only generate their own local anoxic zones but which also spread disease, parasites, and bad genes to wild populations. (I trust I don’t have to remind you all of past and ongoing oil spills.) All of these impacts arise directly from human activity — and while few would claim to like any of these things, I find it curious that the one-time dumping of a load of nutrients into the open ocean would provoke such outrage while all these other, vastly more severe impacts get off with a shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do?

If you let the perfect be the enemy of the potentially-adequate you’ll never stop running simulations, because there is no perfect. Meanwhile, outside the window, Nature’s rolling her own D20. One day she’s going to kick over that anthill you’ve been too chickenshit to poke at all this time, and then where you gonna be?

So I’ve been having a hell of a time getting Bruce Sterling’ attentions here, even though the whole site was inspired by a rant of Bruce’s. Maybe Peter will fill the void and provide us with wild futurist rants and Canadian Content at the same time. Anyway. I’m not sure I agree with the specifics here. But I like the general point.

This really is no time to be precious about things on the planet we inhabit. Sophomoric quibbles about what is or isn’t science are just one part of that. It’s just starting to hit the fan and that is not going to slow down anytime soon.



  1. I don't agree. One of the many things geoengineering needs to do in order for it to become a useful tool we can use to combat climate change is garner some amount of trust from the public. 'Rogue' experiments like this are exactly the wrong way to build trust.

    Or for that matter a better understanding of what the effects of iron fertilization might be since the scientific follow-up so far has been extremely limited. This is of critical importance since we have a poor understanding of how much carbon is ultimately sequestered.

  2. Yes. But it's a great rant.

    So to play devil's advocate, first of all, the dynamics of these interventions may depend crucially on scale. So it has to be tried at several scales, and it's something that is beyond our models,partly since it's very hard to couple biology and ocean physics, and partly because nobody has made a big effort to do so. And while everybody frets and clucks, we are not working on our geoengineering arsenal. Of course, it would be better not to make the planet sick in the first place, but, err, sorry, too late for that, we should have done that Kyoto thing, you know?

    The other thing is that it is arguably impossible to solve the problem using existing institutions. This requires some sort of clever creative workaround.

    So this George character has the resources to do something more earthshaking than a website, and he does it. And now we are talking about it. So there's that.

    Finally, there is the comparison to ordinary everyday ocean pollution.

    I'm pretty tuned into that, because of the ocean acoustic tomography experiments that MIT (Karl Wunsch specifically) wanted to do, to get a continuous proxy record of the deep ocean temperature. It was brilliant, and far cheaper than the ARGO program, and we'd have data going back to 1992 or so. But the trouble is it might inconvenience some whales.

    When it was pointed out that the disturbance was demonstrably, measurably far smaller than the assaults on the whales' acoustic environment happening every day from commercial shipping (never mind shipborne seismic measurements) there was enough skepticism in the environmental community that the project was defeated. This was a clear instance of toxic environmentalism, to use Stewart Brand's memorable phrasing.

    Is there a way out through rogue geoengineering? Clearly, no. But at this point, we need to shake things up. We have to achieve the impossible somehow. There really is no choice.

    Though I don't like George's approach to the extent I understand it, I do like Watts' rant.

  3. "So it has to be tried at several scales, and it’s something that is beyond our models,partly since it’s very hard to couple biology and ocean physics, and partly because nobody has made a big effort to do so."

    Yes let's try it at larger and larger scales until we find the one that produces catastrophic results. Then we will know what the limits are, but then it will be too late 🙂

    Here in the UK, we are now suffering from Chalara dieback of ash trees . This follows Dutch Elm Disease which wiped out all Elm trees growing in Britain, and the current spread of Chestnut leaf miner which is threatening the Horse Chestnut trees here. The disappearance of many bee species is now being blamed on new insecticides which do not kill the bees but destroy their navigational sense. This seems a case of where these new insecticides that have been tested and genetic modified foods may be having unexpected consequences. The natural predators of the Chalara fungus and the leaf miner have been destroyed by those chemicals and now they are running riots destroying our forests. Of course this applies to the whole of Europe not just the UK. It is now considered too late to save the Ash trees.

  4. Meanwhile I'm working on convincing some billionaire of THE tautoligically self-suggesting Gaia-engineering project: 1) Harvest all the trees killed by bark beetle and drought. 2) Use their wood gas for energy production in suitably modified coal-fire plant. 3) Keep the char coal. 4) Marinate char in CAFO cess pools. 5) Put result back into forest. 6) Cash a few carbon credits.

    Another billionaire with a wider time horizon is needed for the following tautologically self-suggesting project: The carbon negative wood gas hybrid upgrade pack for stupid electric vehicles. Use wood gas and a micro turbine to generate electricity. Size of pack: One passenger seat. Wood pellets have a higher energy density than batteries, even with the low efficiency of 20%. This gadget would be particularly useful in winter, when you can use the heat (not the battery) for warming your car.

    Why is no serious scientist talking about the biochar thing?
    (Instead of a carbon credit scheme I suggest pricing wet marinated char, which valuates the char's value as soil amendment.)

  5. I get the feeling the outrage is steered more by the principle of cowboy geoengineering than by the particulars of this incident. The bio-ocean people I've known have scoffed at the notion that there is evidence that iron fertilization would reliably draw down CO2 on the scales required, but didn't express concern about bad effects from experimenting with it. If it hadn't been framed as geoengineering (as opposed to feeding the fishes) it probably would have scarcely been noticed.

  6. MT: 'And now we are talking about it. So there’s that.'

    One of the 'how to sell global warming' psychology studies (possibly by Dan Kahan) found that mentioning geoengineering before asking people about climate change increased the percentage of people who believe that CC is real and man-made. I think the study mentioned that proper accredited Establishment scientists were investigating geoengineering, so perhaps mentioning wealthy First Nation experimenters and slightly dodgy Californian businessmen might not have had the same effect. But it's another line of defence.

    (I've got an animation of the bloom somewhere if anyone wants to see it.)

  7. Re: Electric vehicles are not as stupid as they sound.

    Well, yeah. But if you can't exchange the batteries (and they aren't standardized) you sooner or later feel stupid on longer-distance travel, waiting for the charging...

    Re: Biochar is useful but not in itself capable of enough carbon flux to resolve the problem.

    Perhaps, but see Folke Günther's calculation (perhaps optimistic and outdated).
    Anyhow, we won't get far with insisting on either/or tertium-non-datur thinking. (Like, e.g. the wood gas hybrid car sure can't replace the totality of cars, yet could make sense for a significant fraction of car users. (But alas suggesting wood gas insults the modern technologist. ("Wait, I said micro gas turbine with electrostatic smoke precipitation...")))

  8. Even coal-fired electricity is less carbon intensive than conventional internal combustion because the latter generates so much waste heat, AIUI.

    Most trips are intraurban and low payload; electric cars are fine for that.

    For occasional use in other categories, vehicles should be rented.

  9. This is just a monthly average of 4km chlorophyll concentrations from NASA's Giovanni. The last two frames show the bloom ringed.

    Giovanni also has 8-day info but the data is too patchy to make a coherent animation. (I've done one but you're better off doing your own at Giovanni.) For stills, the bloom is best seen in the 28th August maps for several factors, perhaps most clearly here (dissolved and detrital, gsm):


    [ Much more informative than the single frame you usually see. Thanks. ]

  10. Why would you put the gasifier on the car?

    Leave all that weight behind and run the vehicle on compressed or liquified gas (aside: people should be looking at LNG for trains, but I digress).

    Besides, if you built a fixed gasification plant you could shove the CO2 underground.* With wood gas cars you'd have to air capture the CO2 to sequester it, which is much harder (although Keith, others, are advocating it).

    There is something delightfully "steampunk" about wood gas cars though.

    *All standard disclaimers about CCS apply.

  11. A carbon negative wood gas machine would leave char coal behind. There you got the CO2 sequestered, since char coal doesn't rot. Char coal can be made into a great soil amendment (it holds water and nutrients, reduces N runoff and NO2 outgassing). The soil enhancement adds to the carbon sequestration.

    The char of course still contains some energy (ca. 20%), that's the down side. But money is relative, very much so. 2 years ago I estimated the German fossil fool's cost of 1 metric ton of char made from wood pellets if it replaces home heating with oil. Result: -343€/t (incl. VAT). Yes, minus.

  12. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, November 11, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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