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].