Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Is the iron fertilization project off Haida Gwaii a science experiment, business opportunity, or uncontrolled geoengineering?

News outlets around the world are buzzing with evidence of a recent attempt to fertilize the ocean off the BC coast with iron pushed by a US businessman and funded in part by a group called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation.

The driving force behind the project, Russ George, is notorious in oceanography circles for the company Planktos, which tried and thus far has failed, to create a carbon credit business out of fertilizing the ocean with iron. The current project is like a bad movie script, complete with the a maverick businessman, international treaties, global environmental challenges, local environment costs, possible exploitation of innocent people, you name it.

From what I have learned so far, it looks like the only redeeming thing out of this event is it will give my biogeochemistry class something to discuss next week. I'll tackle my two science-based concerns, then discuss the two broader issues:

The science of fertilization 

Iron is limiting to algae growth in much of the open ocean, which means if you add iron to the ocean, algae will uptake more carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. However, creating a plankton bloom does not necessarily permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. For that, the organic carbon produced through photosynthesis needs to be sequestered in a some reservoir which, unlike algae or most plants, has a long-life time (otherwise, it could decompose and be returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide).

If you were trying to sequester carbon by fertilizing a grassland, the key would be getting that the organic carbon produced by the grasses into the deep soil, where it will stay for a reasonably long time. In the ocean, the organic carbon needs to be exported to the deep ocean, and stay there, ideally getting buried sediments. There it could conceivably remain for thousands of years, rather than returning to the atmosphere. So you need to track the sinking of carbon from the surface, through dead plankton, fecal pellets of things that eat plankton, etc. And, yes, I wrote fecal. If you want to do biogeochemistry, you do have to talk about feces, it is one of the most important mechanisms through which the planet recycles key nutrients.

The key question then is not "How big is plankton bloom?", but "How much carbon was exported into the deep ocean?". This has been the subject of a huge amount of research in the past 20 years. The scientists quoted in the news articles are extremely critical because they know iron fertilization is very complicated. This group does appear to be doing a suite of follow-up measurements, the details of which I do not. Without a huge investment in such measurements over very long periods of time - and I mean months to years, not days to weeks - it would be hard to take this project seriously.

The ancillary benefits 

One of project rationales appears to be that it might help the local ocean and ideally the salmon fishery. To use a popular word, this is a bunch of mularkey.  I'm not an expert on salmon, and I can't speak to the specific details of marine ecology off Haida Gwaii. The NW Pacific Ocean is not enclosed fish farm where adding some fertilizer means more algae for the fish to eat and thus more or bigger fish. In an open system with complex ecology, the long-term effect of the bloom on the fishery is highly uncertain.

The supposed salmon connection strikes me as a marketing cover story. It's no secret that the proprietor of Planktos who set up this organization with the Haida has been trying for years to create an business selling carbon credits or offsets through iron fertilization of the ocean. Even the current incarnation with the Haida has a clear carbon credit aim. The web-site lists a "sea" and "trees" side to the business. The trees side is directed towards forest restoration, clearly with the goals selling carbon credits for protecting or restoring the old growth in the region. Salmon is king here in B.C., slapping 'salmon restoration' onto a project gives it an air of nobility.

The media coverage has done a decent job representing these points about geo-engineering and marine ecology, thanks in part to the outrage among scientific experts who have been quoted. I'll close with a two non-scientific aspects of the coverage which I found a bit troubling:

The role of the Haida

Every story I've seen mentioned the possibility that Russ George is "taking advantage of the Haida". This claim may be well intentioned. Unfortunately, it is also rather paternalistic. It plays into some very old-fashioned racial assumptions, implying that the first nations people were bamboozled by some white man with money and fancy ideas. It may just be that the local people chose to be involved, not out of ignorance, but out of an understanding of the potential financial benefits of setting up a carbon offset business.

Is this geo-engineering?

Michael Tobis raises this important point. The existing geo-engineering treaty is non-binding, meaning the language in the treaty is aspirational and there are no penalties to ignoring the proposed ban on geo-engineering projects.

But we need to ask a broader question. If there were a legally-binding international ban on geo-engineering, would this stunt count? If every one-off dump of iron filings into the oceans counts as geo-engineering, shouldn't every tree planting project?

Definitions will really matter here. A binding treaty would need to set some minimum climate or carbon impact on projects, otherwise a lot of what people and companies do as a part of their everyday business will count at geoengineering. We need to, er, see the forest for the trees. A geo-engineering treaty should be there to control against dangerous large-scale experiments, like reducing the incoming solar radiation, not every carbon sequestration effort.

Given this last point, I think if we are to prosecute the organizers of this stunt off Haida Gwaii, it should be for the marine pollution, like an oil spill, rather than the attempt at geoengineering.


Holly Stick said...

Since the president of Haida Gwaii suggests the village may have been misled, I don't think it's paternalistic to mention that.


One village agreed to the experiment, and perhaps they relied on the company's claims that Environment Canada and other gov't depts knew about it. They also are probably very concerned over the salmon, which they rely on.

"...Sources indicate that the Council of the Haida Nations, the political body that speaks for all Haida people, is passing a resolution that any future decision on such projects will have to be ruled on by the entire nation, rather than by one village..."


First Nations do sometimes get targeted by fraudsters like Bruce Carson, but who knows, maybe various non-FN municipal governments are targetted and fooled too sometimes and we just don't hear about it.

APTN is reporting on this: http://aptn.ca/pages/news/2012/10/17/haida-company-facing-controversy-over-pacific-ocean-iron-dust-dump-says-its-creating-life/

david lewis said...

Ken Caldeira, a leading researcher of geoengineering ideas, posted this comment at the Google Geoengineering group, on the Haida Gwaii iron fertilization project.

Caldeira was present during some of the negotiations aimed at modifying the London Convention/London Protocol to address ocean fertilization. He included a link to Resolution LC-LP.1(2008) On the Regulation of Ocean Fertilization

His main comment: "It is interesting to see the level of interest that intentional ocean fertilization draws relative to, say, nutrients added to the ocean as a result of farm runoff or inadequately processed sewage. We are very sensitive to the intent with which actions are conducted, and are willing to overlook travesties caused in the normal course of business so that we can focus on physically insignificant acts where the presumed intentions do not meet our high ethical standards.

We do not choose to focus on problems based on an objective appraisal of threats posed, but rather largely based on which actions we find to be most ethically repugnant. Apparently, dumping raw sewage simply to save the cost of sewage processing is less repugnant than fertilizing the ocean in hopes of increasing fish yields. One suspects that the real ethical boundary that Russ George is inferred to have transgressed is the desire to personally profit from unconventional mariculture."

And as food for thought he included this link to a Youtube video which decribes the 400 million cubic meters of polluted water per year that is piped directly into Lima Bay by the City of Lima Peru. 85% of the sewage that this city of 9 million people produces is piped, untreated, directly into Lima Bay.

david lewis said...

Russell Seitz posted this comment to the Google Geoengineering group:

"Today's iron fertilization 'experiment' pale in comparison to the actual emission stats of the Age of Steam.

Over ten thousand ships burning several times their weigh in coal annually created a bunker coal trade reckoned in hundreds of millions of tons with an Fe content of several % or more .

Some serious data mining would seem in order to fathom the biological consequences of this massive release, as well as some seabed coring to check the obvious hypothesis- was more biomass captured and sequestered along the shipping lanes than in the oceans at large ?


If the impact over two generations went unremarked, - fly ash pales in turn in comparison to aeolian aerosols like Saharan dust or Andean ash plumes, why the rhetorical high dudgeon (vide infra ), about releases four orders of magnitude smaller?"

Seitz added that he published this E-Letter in Science magazine, i.e. Ocean Iron Fertilization in late 2007.