Satellite view of plankton bloom caused by dumping more than 100 tonnes of iron sulfate and iron oxide into the Pacific Ocean just outside of Canadian jurisdiction, as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme to boost salmon stocks, August 2012. Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll. Giovanni / Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center / NASA

By Rhian Waller of NG Explorers
18 October 2012

(National Geographic) – Unbeknownst to most scientists until a few days ago, two hundred thousand pounds of iron sulphate were dumped into North Pacific Ocean in July, with the aim to trigger a large plankton bloom. This experiment was conducted by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, under the direction of businessman Russ George. Why dump this dirty brown powder into the ocean and why to trigger a plankton bloom? All in the name of reversing man-made climate change.

Phytoplankton is photosynthetic, needing sunlight and nutrients to grow, taking up carbon dioxide in the process and producing oxygen as a by-product. This phytoplankton then dies, falling to the bottom of the ocean, and taking that ‘sequestered’ carbon dioxide with it, trapping it at the bottom of the ocean. One of the major nutrients phytoplankton needs to grow is iron, an insoluble nutrient and often found in limited quantities, inhibiting large plankton blooms from occurring. So by adding iron to the ocean, we can increase the numbers of phytoplankton photosynthesizing, using up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it up, deep in our oceans.

Or at least that’s the theory. Geoengineering is the term coined for deliberately modifying our environment to tackle man-made climatic changes on a global scale. It all sounds so simple – an easy route to solving our carbon emission crisis. The controversy comes that we don’t fully understand the consequences of manipulating our environment on a global scale, and we have to weigh up whether those consequences are better, or worse, than the problem we are trying to fix. We’ve seen what’s happened time after time when we’ve modified the food chain – fisheries collapses, extinction of species – we know well that connections that seem small can have drastic consequences we didn’t even consider. In addition, as that large bloom dies, decay will use up oxygen, potentially creating large anoxic zones, smothering important bottom habitats in the deep ocean.

The ‘experiment’ that was executed by George and colleagues is primarily under fire because it was done undercover, without scientific peer review or process, and without international collaboration, yet can have global consequences. It is also the largest iron fertilization experiment to have occurred anywhere – 200,000 pounds versus a few thousand pounds. Other smaller scale international experiments over the last fifteen-plus years have concluded that the sequestering efficiency is low (and sometimes no effect was seen) – the amount of iron you’d need to make even a slight dent in our carbon emissions is in the million tons per year, and even if you put in that amount, it may just not work. Unregulated iron fertilization on this scale could have dramatic consequences and goes against an international moratoria created by the UN to protect ocean environments. Far from being a savior, this experiment is being called a large scale dumping of waste into our oceans.

Iron Fertilization: Savior to Climate Change or Ocean Dumping?


Depiction of the village of Old Massett ne 'Haida', circa 1876. Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation

By James Keller and Keven Drews
21 October 2012

VANCOUVER (The Canadian Press) – A tiny First Nations village that poured iron into the deep Pacific Ocean in an attempt to boost salmon stocks insisted Friday the project was legal and safe, but the community's explanations did little to convince skeptical scientists, including an American researcher who helped pioneer the theories behind the controversial experiment.

The village of Old Massett, B.C., in the Haida Gwaii islands, spent $2 million to dump more than 100 tonnes of iron sulfate and iron oxide into waters just outside Canadian jurisdiction in a process known as iron fertilization.

The goal was to create a plankton bloom that would feed salmon while also sequestering carbon dioxide, but the project has drawn criticism from the Canadian and American governments, environmental groups, aboriginal leaders and scientists.

Ken Rea, chief councillor for the village of Old Massett, told a news conference Friday the community believes the iron dump will be money well spent, and he hopes subsequent research will allow his community to improve salmon returns and make money through carbon credits.

"We did our due diligence: we looked at the science, the legalities, the practicalities. We consulted and we implemented," Rea told a news conference in Vancouver.

"This is about the fish," he said in an interview later. "This is about providing sustainable opportunities for our future generations."

The case has raised a number of questions, from the legalities of dumping iron into the ocean, particularly in international waters, to the potential effects on the surrounding marine environment.

Rea and other proponents attempted to cast it as a relatively small experiment that will have nothing but positive effects on the ocean. Russ George, the American businessman who oversaw the experiment and has been pushing similar projects for years, was not present and was unavailable for an interview.

Kenneth Coale's research at California State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories helped pioneer the theories behind iron fertilization. He said the experiment appeared to ignore scientific standards and risked causing serious damage to the surrounding environment.

"One cannot overstate the threat that increased atmospheric CO2 poses to this planet and our society, but one cannot overestimate the threat to the marine environment through iron fertilization attempts to control that CO2," Coale said in an interview.

"I think it's a legitimate question to ask whether iron fertilization could become part of a portfolio of strategies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. So far, our scientific results would not suggest that is a good strategy."

Coale was among a group of researchers who pioneered what's known as the "iron hypothesis."

The hypothesis says low levels of iron in the ocean can lead to a lack of plankton — which, in turn, leaves more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and causes the planet to warm. An increase in iron — and plankton — has the opposite effect, drawing CO2 from the atmosphere and cooling the planet.

Coale said experiments with iron fertilization in the open ocean have produced a long list of problems, including algae that generate neurotoxins, the creation of greenhouses gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, and depleted levels of oxygen below the ocean surface.

Two scientists from the University of British Columbia, both experts in ocean plankton, were in the audience for Friday's news conference and questioned both the safety and the quality of the Old Massett experiment.

One of them, Maite Maldonado, criticized the researchers for not releasing enough information about what they were up to, and she noted there is little evidence to support the claim that the iron dump will help salmon stocks.

"I think there is no evidence to support that the decline in the salmon stocks is linked to a decline in phytoplankton biomass," she said in an interview.

"I think we should be very concerned about the long-term consequences of something like this."

The experiment was run by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., an entity owned by Old Massett. The corporation's president, John Disney, denied allegations Friday the experiment was conducted without properly informing the Canadian and American governments.

Disney insisted the corporation was open with what it was doing, even eliciting the help of government agencies from both sides of the border. He suggested government spokespeople who have made such allegations simply weren't aware of what others in their departments were doing.

"The trouble is, that level doesn't know what's going on at this level," he said in an interview.

Environment Canada has confirmed officials for the department met with representatives from the corporation and informed them about disposal at sea legislation, but the department said it never received an application for ocean fertilization. The department has said it has launched an investigation.

The U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provided research buoys to the project, has claimed the agency was misled and was never told they would be used for ocean fertilization.

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. faced a new source of criticism Friday: the Haida Nation. Old Massett is a member of the Haida Nation, whose president and hereditary chiefs council issued a statement criticizing the project.

"The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment," the statement said.

"Our people, along with the rest of humanity, depend on the oceans and cannot leave the fate of the oceans to the whim of the few."

More criticism for ocean fertilization


Massive coccolithophore bloom in the Barents Sea, 24 August 2012. These blooms are caused by high levels of sunlight in the arctic summer, and the right combination of nutrients to allow growth. By Jeff Schmaltz / NASA Earth Observatory

By Madison E. Rowe
17 October 2012

(Greener Ideal) – A private company is facing angry backlash following a controversial geoengineering experiment of Canada’s west coast. The company says it has dumped 100 tonnes of iron into the Pacific ocean that may have triggered an artificial plankton bloom up to 10,000 square kilometres in size.

It is being described as the world’s biggest geoengineering experiment off the B.C. coast. And critics are calling it a “blatent violation” of United Nations rules.

The experiment reportedly involves controversial California businessman Russ George. He teamed up with a First Nations village on Haida Gwaii to establish the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation to run the project.

The project consisted of dumping iron sulphate into the sea in a scheme to enhance both plankton and salmon and generate lucrative carbon credits.

Environment Canada said Monday it is aware of “the incident“. There are reports that the matter is currently under investigation by Environment Canada’s Enforcement Branch.

The Canadian experiment first surfaced in the Guardian, a British newspaper. It reports that George’s team dumped about 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean from a fishing boat 370 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii in July. George and his colleague John Disney sold the people in the village of Masset on the idea of ocean enhancement, and the HSRC agreed to channel more than $2.5 million into projects.

“He promised a plankton bloom and he got it,” Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation, told Postmedia News on Monday. “You can see it on the satellite images.”

There are reports that a large plankton bloom covering an area up to 10,000 square kilometres was visible off Haida Gwaii in August. However, it is not known how much was stimulated by the iron sulphate dumped into the sea and how much of it occurred naturally.

“The people on Masset council and the Haida Development corporation brought this forward with good intentions,” Guujaaw said, noting how it was billed as a salmon enhancement project that would help the marine environment.

The HSRC website says that the corporation’s “plan is to engage in the best applied pasture and ocean science to develop and deliver practical and affordable stewardship for our sovereign Haida Ocean.” The HSRC website also lists many scientific collaborators including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. federal agency, and Canadian Centre for Ocean Gliders.

Postmedia News reports that Guujaaw said he was unaware of the actual fertilization experiment until after the iron was dumped in July and people began talking about it as a “great success.”

George is reportedly a long-time advocate of ocean fertilization as a way to generate carbon credits. The controversial geoengineering technique involves dumping iron into the sea to create plankton blooms to get the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide, one of main greenhouse gases associated with climate change.

George has been a controversial figure for years. He is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc. His vessels were barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments after previous attempts to produce plankton blooms near the Galapagos and Canary Islands. There are reports that George has been pushing various carbon credit schemes in Haida Gwaii for several years.

Guujaaw told Postmedia News that he hopes the experiment will not harm the reputation of Haida.

Critics say the experiment violates the United Nations convention on biological diversity and London convention on the dumping of wastes at sea, which prohibit for-profit ocean fertilization.

“It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions,” said Kristina Gjerde to the Guardian. She is a senior high seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Even the placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research,” she said.

The experiment is expected to draw even more attention at the U.N. convention on biological diversity in India this week.

Haida Gwaii is unofficially known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is an archipelago on the northern coast of British Columbia. Haida Gwaii consists of two main islands: Graham Island in the north and Moresby Island in the south, along with another 150 smaller islands.

Geoengineering project off B.C. coast blasted by environmental groups

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