Ocean Rescue Planktos Foundation hopes to reduce global warming by fertilizing the seas

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, May 22, 2002

URL: sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/05/22/plnktos.DTL

A group of scientists say it may be possible to simultaneously reduce global warming and increase dwindling supplies of fish around the world by adding relatively tiny amounts of powdered iron to the ocean.

Although the concept is controversial, several demonstration experiments have already been conducted, including by the Half Moon Bay-based Planktos Foundation, which hopes to eventually turn the cultivation of plankton forests at sea into an environmental-restoration business similar to reforestation on land.

The proposal has sparked considerable debate within the scientific and environmental communities, in part, because some energy and oil companies see it as a possible way to offset atmospheric pollution caused by their products. If it works, its backers say, the idea could help save humanity from the twin dangers of dying oceans and an overheated planet. On the other hand, others see it as an unworkable scheme that would interfere with nature, one that could lead to consequences even more dire than those it seeks to address.

But before we get into the controversy, let’s review the basic idea.

The relationship between plankton growth and the availability of iron was first suggested in 1988 by revered Moss Landing Marine Base Labs oceanographer John Martin, who didn’t live long enough to see his theory proven.

Martin got his idea from the natural world. Because so little iron floats around free in the ocean and plankton needs the nutrient to grow, it almost immediately consumes any that hits deep-sea water. Martin theorized that dust storms that regularly spread small amounts of iron across the oceans help fertilize the seas.

Recent data has confirmed Martin’s theory. Tiny specks of iron, rare in noncoastal oceans, have been shown to act as catalysts that spur the growth of plankton, which is at the bottom of the aquatic food chain. If you can boost the amount of typically scarce plankton, the theory goes, you can boost the amount of total fish life.

What’s more, because plankton blooms occur on the surface of the water and rely on photosynthesis for their growth, they suck carbon dioxide (a key greenhouse gas) out of the air and store it in the cells of the ocean vegetation, where it ends up either helping feed fish or falling to the ocean floor after it dies, creating a sort of deep-sea mulch.

The latest major occurrence of this natural phenomenon was the recent Gobi Desert dust storms in China, which belched iron dust into the air. Just as Martin had predicted, the wind carried the dust across the Pacific, where it touched off temporary plankton blooms as it settled into the seas.

Experiments have also shown that in at least some areas, plankton blooms will start growing almost immediately even if iron is simply sprinkled into seawater from the stern of a ship.

The blooms typically last a few weeks. That’s long enough, say some experts, for large quantities of the gooey green stuff to be consumed by tiny marine organisms. Small fish eat those little critters, providing in turn a food source for declining populations of larger, overfished species such as swordfish, cod, haddock, monkfish and Chilean sea bass. Provide more food for diminishing populations of fish, the reasoning goes, and they should mount a comeback. At the very least, say backers of this idea, more fish would start growing in places where they can’t grow now.

Several companies have already patented various iron formulations they claim is best suited to the task. One such group, GreenSea Venture Inc., based in Springfield, Va., estimates that “farming” a 3 million-square-mile patch of the ocean, a bit less than the area of the United States, would produce 50 million tons of additional fish annually, or roughly 40 percent of the fish caught each year. Given that the demand for fish is expected to more than double over the next 100 years, say ocean-fertilization advocates, the only way to keep fish on the plates of the world’s hungry consumers without depleting supplies entirely is by finding ways to restore the oceans to a more productive state.

The Half Moon Bay-based Planktos Foundation recently started raising funds to support additional research it hopes will turn ocean fertilization into an environmental business similar to reforestation. In both cases, the basic idea is the same. That is, to grow more carbon dioxide-eating plants to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thereby reduce global warming, which threatens to become an environmental catastrophe.

“Growing more plankton forests at sea is not going to be the total solution to global warming,” says Planktos Foundation founder Russ George, who has been studying the concept for several years. “But it could be one very important tool to help rebalance the environment, in both the ocean and the atmosphere.”

Critics, however, contend that the idea could be dangerous, particularly if it is permitted before all the consequences are fully understood. They also say that big energy companies, which have been among the early financial supporters of the research, might push the process along too fast because they want to find a way to offset their emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that will let them keep selling their products.

“Reducing rather than sequestering emissions is the only way to solve climate change in the long term,” writes J├╝rgen Lefevere, program director of the London-based Climate Change Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, in a letter opposing the idea that is published, along with a rebuttal, on the Planktos Foundation Web site.

Lefevere’s group has declined to support the concept. “[Storing carbon dioxide in plankton] will only postpone the emission reductions and development of new technologies that we need to stop climate change in the longer term,” he writes.

In recent months, five other marine-biology experts have been involved in a heated debate on the pages of the prestigious magazine Science over the propriety of the sort of research planned by the Planktos Foundation.

Three of them, scientists Sallie Chisholm, Paul Falkowski and John Cullen — at MIT, Rutgers and Canada’s Dalhousie University respectively — co-authored a Science article late last year that sought to pull the slats out from under the concept.

The three argue that it would be impossible to control substances deposited into the ocean because of the fluid nature of the seas. As a result, they say, it would also be impossible to accurately measure the effects of such fertilization. What’s more, they add that iron is not the only nutrient plankton needs to grow and that increasing the amount of iron in one part of the sea might deplete the supply of other nutrients available in other parts that are down current, which could kill off life in one place even if it is boosted in another.

They also worry that if environmental operations such as the Planktos Foundation start selling the process to business and government as a way to save the oceans and offset pollution, companies might be so eager to seize on the solution they could end up overfertilizing the seas. Worst-case scenarios: too much iron in the water, or a sea of plankton that crowds out everything else. Under no circumstances, they say, should private industry be encouraged to pursue the idea for profit.

A few weeks later, two other well-respected scientists, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s Kenneth Johnson and David Karl of the University of Hawaii, took the other side. In a response, they wrote that it was far too soon to dismiss the idea entirely.

“We believe that [the critics] have greatly overstated the current knowledge of ocean processes in reaching their opinion that iron fertilization is not a viable option for carbon-dioxide management,” they wrote.

Like the Planktos Foundation’s Russ George, Johnson and Karl want to see more research into iron fertilization of the ocean. The early evidence, say boosters of the idea, is tantalizing enough to proceed, albeit cautiously.

“I think we clearly need to do more research on it,” agrees Chuck Hakkarinen, a research-program manager in the global-climate area at Palo Alto’s Electric Power Research Institute, which studies global warming. “It’s something that is being considered, and should be considered.”

Hakkarinen agrees with the critics on the importance of stopping global warming at its source by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. But, he adds, that won’t be enough, because the global environment, with its relatively slow reaction time, has not yet fully registered the still-looming effects that will be produced by the greenhouse gasses that have been pumped into the atmosphere over the last century.

“The models show that even if we could reduce greenhouse emissions by 70 percent, which seems unlikely, that would stabilize carbon dioxide at twice what it was before the industrial age began,” he says. “That means we’re still going to get global warming. And, realistically, how are we going to reduce emissions by 70 percent?”

The Planktos Foundation’s Russ George, whose background includes a stint running reforestation operations on land, says it would be more than wrong not to further investigate the potential utility of ocean fertilization.

In a move that is sure to outrage some of his critics, his foundation has started selling something he calls “Greentags,” which are essentially bets (similar in some ways to commodity-futures contracts) that the technology will eventually pay off and become commercially viable.

Each $4 Greentag unit represents one ton of carbon dioxide that will be sequestered, or stored, in plankton during the foundation’s early research and implementation of the concept. (The average U.S. household is responsible for emitting about 15 tons of carbon dioxide a year, so $60 worth of Planktos Greentags would theoretically offset a household’s annual contribution to global warming, according to the foundation’s pitch.) If the idea works and is eventually certified by world governments as an effective way to reduce greenhouse gasses, the owners of the Greentag credits might be able to sell them to companies that want or need credits for reducing pollution. As a result, it’s possible the value of Greentag credits might rise over time.

On the other hand, if the research fails to pan out, or if Planktos goes under, the Greentags would become totally worthless, except for their value as a tax-deductible contribution to the nonprofit foundation. Either way, George says, purchasers will get an opportunity to help fund research in a critically underfunded area where new knowledge — including finding out why certain rare plankton blooms are toxic to wildlife — is desperately needed.

“There are definitely people opposed to this research at all costs,” notes EPRI climate scientist Hakkarinen. “But my guess is that most scientists are somewhere in the middle. We shouldn’t be making decisions based on ignorance rather than understanding.”

George says the experiments envisioned by the Planktos Foundation will be harmless to the environment, with all tests first done in the laboratory and then in closed containers in the ocean. Only after safe procedures are established and verified will larger-scale tests be conducted in the open oceans, he says. The goals are to discover which types of iron work best, the optimum conditions for fertilization, the demands placed on the oceans by fertilization, the biological response and the actual amounts of carbon that are sequestered under different conditions.

Another, larger goal is to create a market for ocean-based carbon credits, which are already important in supporting forest planting projects around the world. Carbon credit is a system that allows companies to mitigate environmental damage caused by their operations by reducing pollution in other ways. In some cases, companies have recently bought land-based carbon credits that might reflect, for example, a given acreage replanted with trees.

Just because the market for ocean-based carbon credits might eventually run amok without proper oversight, that’s no reason to ban it entirely, argues George. All that’s needed to restrain abuses is proper regulation and monitoring, something he says additional research would help encourage.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” George says. “But if you think about it, you realize that if we do nothing, then a few hundred years from now, maybe sooner, we could well be looking at oceans that are essentially dead and an altered global climate that poses threats to our very survival. At that point, someone will probably say “Hey, shouldn’t we start thinking about ways we might restore the oceans to health?’ I think we should do that work now, when we still have a chance to turn things around.”

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