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 regularĀ occurrenceĀ 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 ofĀ climate change,” theĀ TimesĀ 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 inĀ tin foil hats, think again. Scientists at major research institutions (including the University of Texas at Austin) are considering geoengineering as a way toĀ turn the climate backĀ 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 aĀ consortiumĀ 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,”Ā Richard LampittĀ of the UK’s National Oceanography CentreĀ 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 CO2Ā could, conceivably also cause danger.)

Georgeā€™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.”


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