The Guardian is reporting that a July dump of 100 tonnes of iron sulphate in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, by California businessman Russ George has fueled a plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometers. The dump is part of a rogue geoengineering experiment that is intended to demonstrate that ocean fertilization using iron can draw carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the ocean long-term to help combat climate change. But environmentalists have called George’s algae bloom experiment a “blatant violation of two international resolutions.”
George’s actions were based on the theory that iron stimulates the growth of phytoplankton such as diatoms, a type of algae. When the phytoplankton die, the organic material sinks, transferring the organisms’ carbon into the deep ocean, where it could remain for centuries. You can see the formation of the bloom on the NASA maps shown here. If you compare this June 2012 map before the iron dump to the August 2012 image after the dump (above), you’ll see that a large red-orange mass has formed near the center of the map, which indicates a substantial increase in chlorophyll production in that area in response to the fertilization effort.
The Guardian quotes Kristina Gjerde of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as calling the dump a “blatant violation of two international resolutions,” referring to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter.
However, George says that the resolutions do not apply to his project and that his effort is, in fact, beneficial and the “most substantial ocean restoration project in history.” His own scientists have been monitoring the results of the experiment and have “gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilization].” He asserts that “the news is good news, all around, for the planet.” George has been known for previous attempts at ocean fertilization connected with commercial efforts to sell carbon offsets.
George’s geoengineering attempt would seem to gain credibility from a study published in Nature in July 2012. Under that study, a research team led by German scientist Victor Smetacek dumped seven tonnes of iron sulphate in the ocean near Antarctica, resulting in a large diatom-dominated phytoplankton bloom. As hoped, the diatoms died and sank to the ocean floor. While Smetacek admits to some uncertainties around the experiment, he writes that the study shows that “iron-fertilized diatom blooms may sequester carbon for timescales of centuries in ocean bottom water and for longer in the sediments.”
However, carrying out iron fertilization efforts indiscriminately could have unexpected side-effects, warns John Cullen, oceanographer at Dalhousie University. He tells The Guardian,
It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later. Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.
Via The Guardian