Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that American businessman George Russ embarked upon the largest geoengineering process in history by dumping 100 tonnes of iron sulfate into the ocean — in spite of international law.Russ’s hope was to help delay the problem of global warming.
Here’s how it works: The iron is meant to attract plankton, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. After the plankton die, they sink to the ocean floor. It’s called ocean fertilization, and for the first time this summer a study said that — for the first time — that the carbon dioxide will stay sunk at the bottom of the ocean floor.
But it’s highly controversial; not all scientists agree that the study definitively proves that the CO2 will stay at the bottom of the ocean, and even if it does, that it might create a completely different set of environmental problems.
Many are sceptical or downright angry about the action. For example, Michael Spector of the New Yorker writes today:
George’s unilateral action was deplorable, premature, and violated several international laws and United Nations covenants. (Well, unilateral may be harsh. He apparently convinced the council of an indigenous village to approve the project.) There was no scientific assessment attached to the experiment, which does carry potential risks.
Maite Maldonado, a biological oceanographer at the University of British Columbia, told the CBC that “if you have a massive bloom or growth of this microscopic algae, you might not have enough oxygen in the water column at certain depths.”
In fact, the experiment could have the “reverse” effect of those intended. “It scares me,” Maldonado added. “We have to be very careful about doing this without having a full understanding of how the ecosystem as a whole is going to respond.”
In 2009, an article published in the journal Nature detailed the downsides of ocean fertilization. Here’s what they concluded:
We already know enough about how ocean systems function to say that iron fertilization on large scales will be disruptive to ocean ecosystems and is unlikely to be effective for climate mitigation. Continuing to justify small-scale iron fertilization experiments in the context of global-scale geoengineering distorts the focus of oceanographic science, and encourages for-profit companies to continue pursuit of this strategy. It is time to move on.
An interesting aside: think about how iron fertilization will affect cap-and-trade. A company could easily just dump iron sulfate into the ocean, calculate how much carbon dioxide it has reduced from the atmosphere, and reap the economic benefits: claim it is lowering the total amount of pollutants it emits, reap tax incentives, what have you.
If ocean fertilization turns out to be dangerous, they could be just delaying the problem for the next generation, or in fact exacerbating its own environmental impact — all while making an easy buck in the process
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