Save the Planet – plant a tree or feed a krill

dreamstimelarge_21677361Two years ago, I reported on an experiment by a fascinating environmentalist and eco-entrepreneur, Russ George, and his pioneering efforts to geoengineer a solution to climate change, carbon sequestration in the depths of the ocean.  I link to Russ George’s blog here.  As the story goes, however, he made a lot of climate scientists angry, including those at the United Nations, and embarrassed the Canadian government, so as with any good controversy, he finds himself embroiled in litigation.   However, don’t be distracted by the lawyers.  The real story is the results of his experiment, which suggest some very promising environmental benefits not only for our climate, but a boon to fisheries that may have also benefitted.  Turns out that some of the salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest are at historic levels which might, just might, be related to George’s bull-dogged determination to do something positive for the environment.  In a story by Joshua Learn over at ClimateWire, E&E Publishing, while many scientists continue to condemn George, others are saying “not so fast”:

[T]im Parsons, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and an honorary research scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Canada, said there have been 12 iron fertilization experiments conducted around the world at different times to date — all of them with accompanying studies.

“They all show a fairly massive increase in production,” he said.

Victor Smetacek, the head of the Department of Pelgiac Ecosystems at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, is one of the few other scientists who have actually conducted ocean fertilization experiments in different parts of the globe, albeit on a smaller scale than HSRC.

“Of the various macro-engineering schemes proposed to mitigate global warming, ocean iron fertilization (OIF) is one that could be started at short notice on relevant scales,” he wrote in 2008 in a paper.

In terms of carbon dioxide, he wrote that “even under the best possible conditions, OIF will have only a limited effect on the rate at which atmospheric CO2 is projected to rise, but the amount involved is too large to be discounted; in short, we cannot afford not to thoroughly investigate the potential of this technique.”

With major energy costs associated with shutting down coal-fired power plants, why wouldn’t we consider cheaper alternatives.

[ConserveFewell Story from January 2013]

A new, potentially promising plan to mitigate climate change by sequestering krillsatmospheric carbon deep within the oceans, known as Iron or Ocean Fertilization, has prompted quite a controversy.  The idea behind this geoengineering feat is to enrich nutrient-poor ocean waters with iron, thereby promoting the growth of algae, which doubles as a source of carbon sequestration and food for phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton, in turn, is an essential food item for krill a small shrimp-like creature that constitutes a major part of the diet of many ocean fish, penguins, and whales, among other ocean critters.  The algae that isn’t consumed dies and sinks to the ocean floor, sequestering carbon for the next million years or so, or so the theory goes.  Ocean fertilizing has the same positive effect as natural deep ocean upwellings where waters become highly productive with life, supporting some of the best fisheries on earth.  The only difference is the source of the nutrients.  For upwellings, nutrients come from the ocean floor; whereas, for fertilizing, it comes from the surface.

Last summer, Planktos, a San Francisco-based, bioengineering firm, founded by Russ George, quietly embarked on a mission to spread 100 tons of iron sulphate from a fishing vessel into the Pacific Ocean near British Columbia to test the viability of ocean fertilization.  Craig McClain, over at Deep Sea News, has a good history and the pros and cons of this commercial proposition.  While some are outraged at Planktos for proceeding purportedly in violation of United Nation rules and without greater review of the potential environmental impacts, the mission successfully spawned a plankton bloom several thousand square miles in size.  Appears like Planktos opted for the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” approach, which has angered some in the scientific community.

There is good reason to proceed with caution, however, because of the law of unintended consequences.  Plus, the precautionary approach is a decidely conservative response, particularly when dealing with changes bounded by uncertainty. In some cases, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.  For example, excessive nutrient loading and harmful algal blooms in some waters, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, have created dead zones caused by the depletion of dissolved oxygen below concentrations vital to sustaining fish and other sea life.  Over the last two decades we have developed a greater understanding of the causes of these hypoxic dead zones, which involve factors vastly different than those areas where ocean fertilizing is being considered on a larger scale.  Although more study is needed, at first blush, ocean fertilizing, with proper review and oversight, does not present the same environmental problems that plague eutrophic waters, which are already hypertrophic.

So, you ask, what are the implications for global climate change or saving the plant?  As a self-professing climate-change skeptic, I’m always a bit reticent to weigh in on the topic of climate change and mitigation strategies, particularly given the limits of my own knowledge and understanding on an incredibly complicated matter.  However, I’ve never been one to believe that by ignoring the very large gorilla in the room it will magically go away.  So here goes nothing (or something).

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it seems that ocean fertilization has great potential as another strategy for creating carbon sinks that can offset the production of CO2 from fossil fuel use.  Other sink strategies include reforestation of grazing or marginal crop lands and re-injection of CO2 deep underground through carbon capture and sequestration, a/k/a CCS, early developments which I helped to oversee during my tenure at EPA.  Assuming human-induced climate change is occurring, each strategy holds potential and promise as one piece of a larger puzzle toward mitigating the potential environmental impacts.  So, rather than reject this newest strategy, ocean fertilization should be thougtfully evaluated and considered along with all other strategies.  Hereto, it strikes me that the correct and conservative approach is to pursue policies that encourage multi-pronged strategies that hedge against worst case scenarios, as opposed to top-down imposed policies that place our future and proverbial “eggs” in one very costly basket.