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.
Yesterday, the 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 experiments.
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 case.”
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 significant expertise.”
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 us:
“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 doubt.”
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 a mystery.
It also seems unlikely that the rogue operation used equipment on loan from NASA and NOAA, as the Guardian article suggested. Lampitt explains:
“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.