The controversial “ocean restoration” firm Planktos has set sail from Miami with a hundred tons of hematite, vowing to dump it off the Galapagos to set off a huge plankton bloom. They’re making so much noise about it that bloggers everywhere and even the New York Times is paying attention. It’s exactly what we don’t need.
As it happens, I just spent all of October writing about this idea, called ocean iron fertilization, for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (articles due out soon). The work was prompted by a 2-day meeting of 80-odd scientists, economists, lawyers, and environmentalists who all met to discuss the issue.
In all the news, Planktos is a polarizing figure – but in making themselves look bad they encourage reporters and bloggers to weigh in with hasty fact-gathering and snide rhetoric that obscures the larger issue: that many intelligent, scrupulous people are thinking very carefully and very clearly about iron fertilization’s prospects.
A few clarifications, then:
- This isn’t a hastily devised and implemented scheme: the idea is 20 years old, and the first ocean tests were conducted 14 years ago. Since then, there have been a total of 12 ocean experiments on the scale of one ton of iron and 100 square kilometers. Planktos wants to do 100 times that.
- Iron doesn’t cause plankton blooms everywhere; in fact the only place it’s likely to work on a large scale is the Southern Ocean.
- The idea is for plankton blooms to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then sink that carbon so it doesn’t re-enter the atmosphere.
- Very little carbon will reach the seafloor, but 20% to 50% may escape the top 200 meters or so, where it will drift in currents that may not return to the surface for a few decades to centuries. In that respect, iron fertilization is not all that different from growing a forest, with the bonus that it won’t all leap back into the air at once, the way a forest is susceptible to a forest fire.
- Even Planktos’s 100-ton experiment is still small on the scale of the oceans. It’s a pity they appear to be doing it without proper scientific support or a published monitoring methodology – it means they’ll likely gain very little useful information from their work. But since it’s relatively small, it’s also unlikely to cause great repercussions in the ocean ecosystem (as Ken Caldeira noted in comments to the NYT piece linked above).
- But are they going to get rich selling this “global warming snake oil”? Probably not. Despite their stated intent to sell carbon credits in regulatory markets, those markets make absolutely no allowances at present for selling carbon from iron fertilization. That leaves the much smaller voluntary markets, where people buy credits to make themselves feel better about their consumptive lifestyles. In those markets, perceived quality is key, and credits hawked by a salesman in a rusty tanker may have trouble competing.
But bear in mind why people are taking iron fertilization seriously at all: We face a carbon emissions problem at a scale that almost no one comprehends gravely enough. We need to keep 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every single year – not counting what’s about to happen in India and China (more on this in a coming post about why you should support a carbon tax). Subtract from that number whatever progress we make this year, then, come January, add another 7 billion tons. The result is going to be pretty close to 14 billion tons. What about the year after that?
Unfortunately, the visible figurehead of this movement is a shifty businessman with terrible taste in slogans (I mean, “Voyage of Recovery”??). But don’t dismiss the whole field because of one person with a used research ship and a bad business model.
After we’ve changed out all our light bulbs, hiked the price of air travel, switched to biodiesel, planted trees on all the remaining land, and persuaded Congress to begin talking about the possibility of enacting legislation to encourage further changes, we’ll still be facing a hefty carbon liability. What then?