Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Why Dumping 100 Tons of Iron Dust In the Ocean To Save the Planet May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Photo by HO/AFP/Getty Images

100 tons of iron dust were dumped into the Pacific in a misguided effort to combat climate change by fostering the growth of plankton. In this NASA satellite image, an enormous bloom of phytoplankton are seen off the coast of Norway in 2004.

A California environmentalist is in hot water after dumping over a hundred tons of iron sulfate into the cold currents of the Pacific.

Russ George is described as an “entrepreneur” by some and as something of a charlatan by others. (The New Yorker calls him “The First Geo Vigilante.”)

George spent part of July in a fishing boat off the Haida Gwaii islands of British Columbia, scattering the red dust in an effort to cause a growth of plankton and help reverse climate change, according to various media reports. The story was first published in The Guardian.

The eco avenger justified the caper to the New York Times by saying that the iron dust was used as a “fertilizer” to cause plankton growth, which can help eat up carbon in the atmopshere. (And he also noted that plankton could help salmon recover in the region.)

So did it work?

Yes and no.

The Guardian says that satellite images “appear to confirm the claim” by George that he engineered an algae bloom that stretched for nearly 4,000 square miles.

But several scientists told the Times that the plankton growth that did occur is a regular occurrence in the region and couldn’t be tied to the infusion of iron dust.

“Marine scientists and other experts said the experiment, which they learned about only in news reports this week, was shoddy science, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change,” the Times reports. The project reportedly cost $2.5 million, with a significant portion of that coming from native villagers.

(Some in-depth investigations of George’s schemes can be found here.)

But if the idea of climate engineering strikes you as far-fetched and better left to folks in tin foil hats, think again. Scientists at major research institutions (including the University of Texas at Austin) are considering geoengineering as a way to turn the climate back absent a significant reduction in worldwide carbon emissions. Some of the ideas include shooting tiny particles of sulfur dioxide into the sky to block out some of the sun (much like a volcanic eruption does) and reduce earth’s temperature, carbon sequestration and even using giant mirrors to reflect the sun.

And iron fertilization isn’t off the table. There’s even a consortium dedicated to the idea, but they say it should be controlled and done for the public good, not for profit.

“This is extremely unhelpful for those of us wanting to do some serious work on iron fertilisation,” Richard Lampitt of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre tells New Scientist.

Michael Specter of the New Yorker says that while Russ George’s heart might be in the right place, his methods are deplorable, and potentially dangerous:

“This idea may eventually prove useful or at least necessary (and so might the notion of seeding the stratosphere with particles that can block light.) Many scientists are exploring these and other approaches to our growing climate crisis. And nearly all agree that we need to move with great deliberation when altering the ecosystem of the ocean. (A sudden influx of oxygen could harm bacteria that are an essential part of the food chain. Too much iron could result in an increased production of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. And sequestering enormous amounts of CO2 could, conceivably also cause danger.)

George’s unilateral action was deplorable, premature, and violated several international laws and United Nations covenants. (Well, unilateral may be harsh. He apparently convinced the council of an indigenous village to approve the project.) There was no scientific assessment attached to the experiment, which does carry potential risks.”


  • Robert

    I have come to the conclusion that geo-engineering will be the only solution to climate change. The only way to reduce emissions is through a multi-lateral framework (IE Kyoto Protocol), but those only work if everyone participates. Since there will always be holdouts to that (China, the US), it will take unilateral action to avoid climate change’s most destructive consequences–and the only unilateral solution is geo-engineering. I imagine that sometime in the next 30 years, once the negative impacts of climate change really get under way, we will see a country (or perhaps a coalition of the willing) employ the sulfur dioxide method mentioned above.

    • thinkoutsidethebox

      I have learned in my studies that global warming is part of a larger climate cycle. Anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change is more mythology than fact. Several other planets in our solar system are also experiencing ‘climate change’, unusual warming, tremendous weather anomolies, etc, without the benefit of human CO2 emissions. This trend, to a large extent, is not humanities’ fault. Our attempt to ‘control’ what’s happening are only going to make things worse (it is utter hubris to think we know better than the planet itself how to establish equilibrium over time). Buckle your seatbelts. The next several years are going to be a very bumpy ride.

      • notarepublican

        i’m sorry, “other planets… are experiencing ‘climate change’”? please show me the long-term record this statement is based on or cite a source… because you are obviously an intelligent scientist. :-p

        • a libertarian

          Remember that regardless of what is happening, there are those who wish to take advantage of the circumstance. Sustainability is a very pressing issue, but Democrats have no more interest in saving the environment than Republicans do; they simply see an opportunity to use coercion against people (just like Republicans do). Look at Al Gores’ Ranch for an example of how concerned Democrats are with honest sustainability (I am no apologist for right-wing oil subsidies either). The only way to fix all of this is for people to voluntarily make efforts to waste less.

          • The voluntary approach does not seem to be working. If things get very bad with the climate under business as usual and the voluntary approach you will see far more government intervention than now needed to manage CO2 emissions. I’m sure you don’t want that.

      • keep studying- cast the net very wide

  • Tom L

    Every zealot will want to do his own pet project to seat himself on a higher moral perch than the rest of us. Environmentalism has become the New Paganism. The zealots will stop at nothing to try to glorify their moral superiority to the rest of us. They are as crazy as the Salafi Moslem extremists.

    • iuoiu

      Tom, do you also equate religion as the new paganism when you take into consideration all of the fringe cooks who do violent and destructive things in the name of their religion?

      • Dangitscold

        What does Gordon Ramsey have to do with it?

    • Do not judge the truth of the message by your judgements of the messengers.

  • Sam

    1991 Mount Pinatubo erupted sending around 40,000 tons of iron powder into the oceans leading to a significant drop in atmosphere CO2. We need to pursue this, starting at a small scale, observing, and then if the results are good we can scale it up. The risk of not pursing this is much greater than the small controlled risk of long-term, sustained testing. Good for Russ George

    • BDH

      There’s an error in your presumption. Correlation does not equal causation. Basic science, that.

  • cdgraves

    Messing with the environment in any way is the problem. We have polluted it with industrial waste chemicals, and the only way to correct for that is to reduce industrial waste. Compensating with shortsighted manipulation will not turn out any better than plain old pollution.

  • Elaine-theRainbow

    Don’t what to say, but hey, some people just addicted to do some stupid thing in the name of their gods and in the reason of ‘save the planet’, on the expenses of People’s rights/liberty and Earth’s resources. Addiction is addiction, period.

  • farmrdave

    It sounds to me that this was paid for as an experiment intended to cause habitat recovery for local fishery. As for global climate change it might be favorable to that by absorbing greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. But not the central purpose.

    Anyone who has read the studies available on the internet should see that the climate alarmists are spreading doom and gloom about results of a warmer climate. The same groups are claiming the climate is warming due to actions of man. Every action has a reaction that effects everything else to a degree.

    Studies show a warmer climate is more natural for our earth than what we short lived humans generally believe. This is likely considering that our history is vary short (human recorded history) compared to geologic history read in the fossilized remains of previous inhabitants of our earth. Studies show that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere trail the increases in temperature of past times indicating that it is caused by warmer temperatures rather than being the cause of climate warming. Others who participate in the study of effects of climate as their main function in life say that a higher level of carbon dioxide is a vary good thing for several reasons. That a warmer climate will cause fewer, milder storms and greater prosperity through more abundant food crops and greater plant growth. That we are still in a warming period after a mild ice age. These claimants of natural climate fluctuation are not deniers of anything. They are scientists reporting facts as they discover them. Mutually testing and retesting the facts brought to light by others.

    Climate warming, climate cooling. Man caused, or natural. My observations include this. Those who study climate are claiming their peer reviewed science says man is not the driving force behind global warming. That warming is not a bad thing but more of a natural boon to mankind. Those who are alarmists are not scientist but politicians (trustworthy?). Are always siting a “general consensus of scientists”, that exist somewhere in the world but I cannot find their work. Siting a study of climate change which no one seems willing to publish on the internet.

    This man who dumped tons of a substance into the ocean was polluting the waters no matter his intentions or the effect of the actions. He should follow proper procedure and obtain authorization from whom ever has authority to monitor fisheries and such. On the other hand who has more knowledge and authority than the native Americans who hired this project? Their study has gone on for thousands of years, not as an abstract study for a college paper. A study of their vary method of existence. Do not discount their knowledge of fisheries, or their ability to make educated decisions.

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