In the never ending struggle against global warming, we as a species have come up with a number of methods to help reduce our carbon footprint upon the world. But in terms of actual success, our efforts have more often than not been in vain. However, one American firm would like to take a bit out of global CO2 levels by seeding the oceans with micronized iron.
Strange as it sounds, Planktos Inc. (with offices in San Fransisco and Vancouver) was hoping to set sail this month from the coast of Florida, make a bee line to the Galapagos Islands (where Darwin developed the theory of natural selection and evolution) where they would dump 45 tonnes of iron dust into the sea. It seems strange, but when approached from a scientific perspective, it actually makes sense. The iron rich water would stimulate the growth of phytoplankton in the water. Phytoplankton is essentially a plant, and as such, will absorb the carbon dioxide in the water, and converting it to oxygen. Planktos would like to compare this process to something like reforestation, but for the oceans.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has thrower up a red light to these plans, citing (despite the best of intentions and backing research) that the plans would constitute dumping, and would require a permit under the U.S. Ocean Dumping Act if a sea fairing vessel registered in the U.S. were to be used. In response, Planktos CEO Russ George had said that the U.S. regulations on ocean dumping should apply only when a firm dumps levels of a substance that are one per cent or more above the level considered toxic. Planktos plans to dump "roughly a billion times below regulatory limit," he said.
To further complicate matters, environmental groups and a number of U.S. studies have indicated that this 'seeding' project could have an adverse affect upon ocean life. There is the possibility that enriching the iron content in sea water could lead to toxic algae blooms, and that all of the decomposing plankton masses from said toxic blooms would release other hazardous greenhouse gases and or choke off the oxygen supply to the deeper ocean levels. Planktos responded to these allegations by indicating that not only would their plans help to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, but would also help to reverse the acidification affect of the oceans that is killing off the coral reefs. In contrast however, it has been proven that warmer ocean temperature's and bacterial growth from ocean dumped sewage are responsible for coral deforestation. Such is the case with the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.
"The world has spent the last 20 years and more than $100-million" developing the science behind the plan, Planktos CEO Russ George also said. "These questions have all been addressed," he says, blaming the EPA's reservations on "fear mongering" by numerous environmental groups, such as the Ottawa-based ETC Group, which discovered the U.S. government document earlier this week.
Planktos still hopes to launch its "Voyage of Recovery" and will further petition Washington with its "green message of hope." Planktos has even added that "There are 42,000 large vessels on the ocean in world today. We have shipping agents in Central America working for us lining up vessels that might be able to assist." But it appears that they will have to present their proposal to the International Maritime Organization in Spain, which sets international shipping standards for matters such as ocean dumping. Planktos also hopes to sell 'Carbon Credits' in lieu of the CO2 they would hope to capture with this seeding process.
In response a number of creditable minds from the scientific community have contributed their thoughts on the subject. Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology had said "It may be possible to store excess carbon in the ocean, but you'll be acidifying the ocean when you do it, and causing a dramatic change in the the ocean's ecology, with no known effects,"
Ken Caldeira, also of the Carnegie Institution and co-author of a section of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that dealt with ocean-carbon capture, says "there's no practical way to verify" that ocean seeding would sequester any additional carbon - and if it did, it would exacerbate ocean acidification." Furthermore, "It's far-fetched to claim you help ocean ecosystems by disturbing them," he said.
No one can predict what may or may not happen to an ecosystem such as the ocean, but one thing is certain; if we consume fewer fossil fuels and develop new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions, then those new methods will be far more fruitful (and profitable) than any other method proposed.