Scientists raise further concerns over ‘rogue geoengineer’ in open letter
- 17 Oct 2012, 14:03
- Roz Pidcock
A group of world leading ocean scientists has written a letter
to the Guardian today expressing serious concern about the 'world's
biggest geoengineering experiment' that took place in the Pacific
Ocean this summer. We take a closer look at the letter and
scientists' fears about what the 'experiment' could mean for our
oceans and the future of our climate.
Guardian reported that controversial Californian businessman
Russ George illegally dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the
Pacific ocean. The dumping, which took place in July off the west
coast of Canada, appears to have been an attempt at 'ocean
fertilisation' - a proposed geoengineering method to reduce
atmospheric carbon dioxide by locking it up in the deep ocean.
Carbon Brief has seen a letter sent to the Guardian by the In-Situ Iron Studies
(ISIS) consortium - an international group of scientific
experts in ocean fertilisation. It voices concerns about George as
a "rogue geoengineer". Professor Richard Lampitt, co-chair of the
ISIS consortium, told us this morning:
"[W]e are writing to the Guardian to
make absolutely clear that we deplore this irresponsible approach
to such activity".
Bloom or bust?
Like all plants on land, oceanic plants need carbon dioxide,
water, light and nutrients to grow. But about a third of the
world's oceans are short of iron, an important nutrient, which
limits the amount of plant life that can grow in those regions.
The idea behind ocean fertilisation is that adding large amounts
of iron to parts of the ocean where concentrations are low could
stimulate more plant life to grow, drawing more carbon dioxide out
of the water as they do so. When they die, these plants - known as
phytoplankton - sink to the sea bed and are buried by layers of
sediment, locking the carbon away for many hundreds of years. This
removal of carbon dioxide to the deep ocean allows the surface
ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lowering
the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
This is the theory. But scientists have long been concerned that
adding large amounts of iron could have unforeseen circumstances
for marine ecosystems. As Lampitt explains:
"The general principle of being
very, very cautious about it is absolutely right so that when
people carry out these experiments they don't adopt a cavalier
approach, they really do the experiments properly".
This precautionary approach to ocean experimentation is
underlined by the
London Protocol, an agreement made through the International
Maritime Organisation which is designed to protect the marine
environment from human activities. The UN Convention on Biological
Diversity has also imposed a broad ban on geoengineering
Lampitt explains that these international guidelines are
critical so that:
"not only are the experiments done
properly so that conclusions can be drawn with some confidence but
that any potential side effects are examined in some detail...and
thirdly, that there are no significant dangers to the other users
of the ocean".
The scientists' letter echoes concerns about the experiment
violating IMO regulations, saying:
"[T]he involvement of experts is
essential so that experiments are conducted with the highest
standards and the results withstand the rigors of peer reviewed
publication. [R]eputable researchers...have developed principles
for scientific conduct that were not followed in this
Has it even worked?
The letter also raises an interesting question about the outcome
of the experiment. Iron was dumped about 200 miles off the coast of
Haida Gwaii, a group of islands of the west coast of Canada in July
this year. The Guardian reported that the council of the islands
was wrongly led to believe that the experiment would restore local
salmon stocks and persuaded to invest $1 million of its own money
into George's project.
According to Martin Lukacs of the Guardian, the satellite image
for the ocean around Haida Gwaii, below, appears to:
"confirm the claim by Californian
Russ George that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton bloom
as large as 10,000 square kilometres".
Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and
Information Services Center/NASA
But the letter from ISIS today suggests that it may not be as
straightforward as that:
"Determining the local effects of
iron fertilization against the background of natural variations is
difficult, and impacts on fisheries, ocean biota, and carbon
cycling harder still".
The iron was dumped in an eddy, which is a highly dynamic ocean
circulation analogous to a storm in the atmosphere. Some types of
eddy can be hotspots of biological activity so distinguishing
natural from artificially induced effects is tricky and requires
analysis of satellite images from more than just one day. Lampitt
echoed these concerns, saying:
"To interpret these images requires
a tremendous of expertise and as far as we are aware there is
nobody within that group who has done the work who has any
When we asked Lampitt whether Russ George was justified to
describe his experiment as "the most substantial ocean restoration
project in history" as the team has collected "a greater density
and depth of scientific data than ever before", Lampitt told
"I haven't seen the data, the data
will probably never be released..but I would suggest [George]
really isn't in a position to make statements like that. But I will
be getting some further information on that as the day goes by no
The ISIS ocean fertilisation consortium has a global reach, and
it appears that none of its researchers were involved in George's
experiment. So the team behind the controversial experiment remains
It also seems unlikely that the rogue operation used equipment
on loan from NASA and NOAA, as the Guardian article suggested.
"Russ George has been banned from US
ports because of what he tried to do previously and he is largely
blacklisted so the prospect of him having support from any US
organisation is, I would suggest, miniscule."
Long term problems
It's not just the ecosystem off Haida Gwaii that could be
adversely affected. The long term future of ocean fertilisation as
a possible geoengineering approach could also be in jeopardy.
Lampitt explains that some people may use the incident:
"as a reason why there should be a
complete ban on all geoengineering research and that, to my mind,
is extremely damaging. The possibility of us reducing our carbon
emissions seems to decrease by the year and therefore we have to
think about other strategies too."
The Guardian suggested the experiment is also likely to 'spark
outrage' at the United Nations Environmental Summit happening this
week in Hyderabad, India.
Mystery still shrouds George's 'experiment', but even as we
interviewed Lampitt this morning, emails were flying and meetings
were being hastily organised to assess the extent of any damage
that may have been done, whether to the ocean, or to the prospects
for responsible research into geoengineering techniques.