Environment, Science

Iron Man of the ocean

Climate change is money these days. Arguably, it is our voracious appetite for profit and the pre-eminence of short-term economic concerns that has contributed to much of our current environmental predicament – it is just this that prevents us from finding meaningful solutions.

Bryozoans Phytoplankton

Carbon-trading schemes, for example, allow more enthusiastic polluters to buy “unused” emissions (carbon credits) from the more environmentally scrupulous, thus giving climate change that much-needed neo-liberal angle.

It was apparently with these in mind that the American businessman Russ George embarked on his recent do-it-yourself marine geoengineering experiment.

In July, he dumped approximately 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the northeast Pacific, just off the Canadian coast. That’s over 10 times what was added in a scientific study published around the same time. It appears that the iron fertilised a phytoplankton bloom that covered some 10,000km2. Not bad for a bloke in a fishing boat and a bag of dirt.

Phytoplankton, which require iron to grow, are the plants of the ocean; they absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, just like plants on land. When they die, they sink to the deep-sea floor and much of the absorbed carbon is taken down with them.

This process is one of the most important ways that carbon dioxide is taken out of the atmosphere. In terms of climate-change mitigation, this is good news!

Recognising this, some scientists have suggested adding iron to the ocean to fertilise phytoplankton growth. They are particularly interested in the Southern Ocean, a region in which phytoplankton often struggle to grow because of the very low iron concentration.

Their rationale is that an increase in happy, well-fed phytoplankton will lead to an increase in carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. Russ George’s rationale is that this will allow him to claim lucrative carbon credits because his business would have a net environmental benefit.

But iron fertilisation is a pretty controversial business. The ecological consequences of meddling with the bottom of the food chain are potentially severe, and no one understands fully just what they may be. There are worries that the artificial blooms could become toxic.

What’s more, there are even doubts about how much extra carbon dioxide the phytoplankton can remove long-term. Consequently, there are fairly strict UN rules about who may conduct these experiments. American businessmen cannot.

Geo-engineering is a delicate and uncertain, but potentially very important, science. If we are to discover ways in which it could genuinely help us, perhaps we should encourage Russ George et al. to experiment with alternative sources of revenue. And if the so called “climate-friendly” schemes we have put in place encourage such dangerous abuses, maybe we need to have a good look at them too.

23/10/2012

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Peter Sheehan Still faffing around after three years at Concrete, Peter is back for a second year as deputy editor. Presumably that means that last year wasn’t a complete disaster, but you never can tell… Peter has pledged to spend this year delegating as much work as possible to his colleagues, thus leaving him free to further his long-standing efforts to become Concrete’s one-man answer to Peter Mandelson and Malcolm Tucker.


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