What YOU Need To Know About Iron Fertilization

You’ve likely seen the story already:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

Just *scientists and government officials*? In reality, all of us should be outraged, including you. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the prospect of iron fertilization–a geoengineering strategy that involves dumping large amounts of iron into the ocean. Back in 2008, I described how a for-profit company called “Planktos”canceled its field tests due to a lack of funds–blaming a “highly effective disinformation campaign.”

Now the 62 year old so-called “chief executive” of that company, Russ George, has taken it upon himself to experiment with planet Earth. That’s not okay. Further, it’s not legal. You can read about his egregious and irresponsible behavior at the NYTimes, but I’d like to provide a bit more background on iron fertilization for readers.

The idea is relatively simple: In certain regions of the ocean, a lack of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton.  When dust containing iron settles onto these regions, plankton blooms occur which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. When the algae die, the carbon sinks, and can be stored for varying amounts of time.

For-profit investors hope to earn carbon credits through this kind of carbon-offset scheme. But the truth is, iron fertilization cannot be viewed as a simple input and output equation and therefore it’s difficult to quantify what to expect.  The great deal of uncertainty makes policy governing these kind of large-scale geoengineering projects critical before any action is taken for profit.  This is because the implications of altering our climate and oceans have the potential to impact everyone.

Here’s what you need to know:

* Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and so on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

* We do not know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

* Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

* Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.   In fact, some areas that have not been tested may be more promising for iron fertilization.

* In the short-term, iron fertilization typically leads to phytoplankton blooms, but the long-term effects are mostly unknown.

* Science has a great deal to learn about creating the right market to facilitate offset efforts.  The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

Read more on Iron Fertilization here and here [pdf].

Energy Perception And Policy Reality

As the election nears, energy policy remains a regular topic on the campaign trail. Controversial subjects like arctic drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue making headlines as the political class debate our nation’s changing energy mix. But let’s not deceive ourselves, or the public at large, about a president’s real role and reach.

Although certain real-world outcomes will be dependent on voters this November, the rhetoric may not match the reality on some fronts this election season. For example, coal supporters generally favor Mitt Romney, yet the United States will become ever less dependent on coal no matter who wins due to abundantly available natural gas. Likewise, opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline typically rally around President Obama, even though that project will probably roll ahead regardless of the victor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the vast disconnect between perception and reality has to do with gasoline prices. According to the latest poll numbers, 45 percent of Americans ranked the cost of gasoline as the energy topic they would most like to see the candidates address during the presidential debates. For comparison, U.S. energy security was the second-most-popular response, garnering a total of just 10 percentage points. Other choices, such as energy efficiency, climate change and offshore drilling, did not break out of the single digits.

Politicians are acutely attuned to the interests of their constituents. So it’s not surprising that gas prices featured prominently in speeches at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We have been hearing a good deal of related rhetoric for years. The price we pay at the pump memorably took central stage in Michele Bachmann’s campaign during the summer of 2011 when she told crowds she would reduce the cost of gasoline.

“Under President Bachmann you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again,” she promised. “That will happen.”

Of course, Bachmann never outlined just how she would achieve this feat because a sitting president cannot simply make it so. What she didn’t understand — and what most voters do not seem to grasp — is that gasoline prices are tied to a global crude oil market. Therefore, even if our government goes so far as to enact policies that expand domestic drilling, the excess production at home could very well be offset by other factors, such as reduced OPEC production.

But right or wrong, voters’ perceptions on these issues do matter tremendously. Tomorrow’s energy solutions require more than cutting-edge technologies and carefully crafted legislation. Public opinion — what people really think about energy — plays the most critical role in shaping America’s energy future.

Personal attitudes, concerns, and priorities are determined by more than just “the facts.” We take into account stories in the media, the talking points of politicians, vocal celebrities and religious leaders, as well as the opinions of family and friends. All of these perspectives flow together to, in the aggregate, influence which energy issues our representatives — regional and national — address through policy and legislation.

Just weeks before we go to the polls, there are countless partisan claims being made regarding where Obama and Romney sit on every hot-button issue. But in reality, national energy strategies don’t fit so neatly into red or blue compartments. The boundaries are blurry, motivated by more than a candidate’s platform. Energy policies often cross party lines and we must open our eyes to when and where they do. More importantly, we must, at times, be willing to cross party lines along with them.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

On Balancing A Blog, Career, and Motherhood

Lately a lot of readers have been asking why I’m not posting here as often. The truth is, a lot has changed professionally and personally since I began in 2006. I’m working hard to strike a balance between career obligations, family, and life on- and offline.

When I composed my first blog post, I was living as a policy staffer in DC. Hours on the Hill were long, but I enjoyed getting my thoughts about the convergence of science, policy, and culture down at the end of each day. Blogging felt cathartic and I did my best writing very late into the night–the same schedule I kept while composing my thesis during grad school. Sure I had a full-time job, but I was single, living in the city, with boundless energy and relatively few commitments.

By the following year, I started taking my role in the science online community more seriously. I joined Chris Mooney at Scienceblogs where we posted every day. There were far fewer science bloggers at the time and we all knew–or knew of–each other, participating in a kind of ongoing conversation. My online contributions not only helped me organize my thoughts, but also provided an informal education about journalism, leading to books about the role of science in our culture. I started writing regular articles and giving talks, while trying to include some sort of social life along the way.

By early 2012, I was traveling every week–sometimes for weeks at a time–and wading into my newest role as director of the Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. I’m also married now, with a newborn baby boy.

In other words, we grow and change. Being at the helm of university project takes a lot of planning, analysis, and time. And as for those late-nights writing until 4am? These days, motherhood has me ready for bed by 9pm. I still continue to travel regularly for book talks and job obligations. In fact, with our upcoming energy poll release focused on voting behavior, it will continue to be a whirlwind up to the election. So right now I’m working hard at balancing career, parenting, and contributing to the online science community.

We hear a lot about whether women can–or should try to–”have it all.” I suspect the answer is quite nuanced. We can do different things very well at different times in our lives as we change. With every passing year, I’m learning more about myself and figuring out what works for me.

Be assured Culture of Science will continue. This blog has been through five incarnations at various networks over six years. You might even say I’m a veteran in the community at this point. So yes, I will keep posting when I have meaningful ideas to contribute. And always know I’m glad to have you along on the journey.