Satellite view of possible phytoplankton bloom caused by Russ George's rogue iron fertilization experiment, 29 August 2012. NASA / MODIS / AQUA

By Kathryn Doyle
28 November 2012

It's hard to stop a bad idea with enough money behind it—even rogue science on the high seas.

Russ George, a wealthy American businessman with a history of big, controversial ideas, launched his latest one this October: dumping 200,000 pounds of iron sulfate into the North Pacific. His aim was to spur a huge plankton bloom, which would absorb carbon dioxide in photosynthesis and then sink to the ocean floor. George was attempting to engage in ocean fertilization, the idea that seeding the sea in this way creates those organic blooms that sequester carbon when they sink.

Plenty of scientists have bandied about the idea of ocean fertilization—it's one of the most common proposals for geoengineering, or engineering the earth to protect civilization from climate change. But George didn't write a scientific paper about the implications of fertilizing the Pacific Ocean with iron. He just went out and did it, with the backing of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, a First Nations group in Canada that was hoping an improvement in the ocean would also improve the salmon numbers they depend on.

This wasn't George's first attempt at unilateral geoengineering. But his solo action has outraged scientists, who have spent years studying not only the potential benefits but also the potential negative consequences of hacking the earth. All of which leads us to ask: What's to stop modern-day mad scientists?

Geoengineering is so new, and its consequences so big, that there is no set of laws to deal with it yet. "Right now there is no system for that," says Lisa Speer, Director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. More rogue scientists and businessmen could be motoring through those loopholes in the near future. "I think we're likely to see more and more of these ideas," Speer says.

George has already drawn attention for plankton-centric attempts to engineer the climate. "The Weatherbird, his previous escapade, was widely criticized," says Speer. Country representatives ratified a treaty of the London Protocol on May 1, 2008, that was prompted by the Weatherbird experiment. Dumping a bunch of experimental stuff in international waters violates these rules, but it's not clear what happens next. At best, it's questionably legal, but no expert would call it definitely illegal. One could potentially avoid any punishment by calling it legitimate scientific research and exploiting the vagueness of that phrase. Plus, the rules are murky in international waters, as any keen observer of Bond villains knows. International protocols and moratoriums like the ones on ocean dumping exist, but enforcement has to be carried out by the country where a vessel in violation originated.

The amount of iron sulfate George dumped into the ocean was only a drop in the bucket on a global scale, says Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist of the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology. "The sewage waste coming into the oceans from coastal towns around the world, I'm sure that's going to be orders of magnitude bigger than what Russ George did. Humans are adding nutrients to the oceans in large quantities every day, knowingly. Of all the damage that humans did to the oceans on that day, Russ George was probably a millionth of that."

For Caldeira, it's the fact that George conducted his experiment in secret rather than the actual amount of iron he dumped that's really troubling. And that's what has bigger implications for the future. "Experiments like this make people realize that there are holes big enough you can literally drive an ocean liner through them," Blackstock says. […]

Can We Stop Modern-Day Mad Scientists?


By David Biello
24 October 2012

This past July Russ George served as chief scientist on a cruise to fertilize the northeastern Pacific Ocean with iron—the latest in a long string of similar, and usually controversial, efforts he has led. He has been attempting to commercialize such ocean fertilization efforts for years, including setting up the failed company Planktos. In parallel, he has also been promoting plans to generate carbon credits for companies and governments, allowing them to emit greenhouse gases in exchange for replanting carbon dioxide-absorbing forests from Canada to Europe.

The ocean fertilization experiment is similar. The idea is that by providing missing nutrients, a plankton bloom can be created. Such a bloom sucks up CO2 as it grows, like plants on land, and then, potentially, buries that carbon at sea as the tiny corpses sink to the bottom. But at the same time, George is hoping the bloom will trickle up the food chain and feed salmon, restoring their historic abundance. Of course, if the bloom is eaten, then animal metabolism will reemit the CO2, sending it back to the atmosphere and defeating the purpose of reducing CO2 emissions, as prior scientific studies have shown.

George says he is convinced that iron fertilization can be a solution to global warming, and he's pitched the idea to everyone from the Haida people of British Columbia to would-be "seasteaders" looking for a business proposition for their floating cities. Given the controversy surrounding George's latest bid—which is billed as an attempt to restore salmon populations but also aims to earn saleable carbon credits—Scientific American spoke with him on October 19.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

How did this Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. project start?

This is a village project. They started it, they own it, they run it. It's not the Russ George rogue geoengineering story.

You've seen the vile and vehement twisting of this story. You can probably imagine how I feel. I was the faith and trust and hopes and dreams of a village whose environment is dying, whose culture is dying because the salmon are dying. And now the world is saying they were duped.

So did the iron fertilization work?

We don't know. A really famous scientist once told me: "Russ, keep in mind: you don't know." The correct attitude is: "Data, speak to me." Do the work, get the data, let it speak to you and tell you what the facts might be. Don't assume you have this prescient knowledge of how everything is.

But we do know that in 2008 when 450 million sockeye salmon left the Fraser River, the expectation was that fewer than one million would return. More and more baby salmon go to sea and fewer and fewer adult salmon return. But in August 2008 a volcano dusted ash, and the northeastern Pacific Ocean turned into a massive plankton bloom. The plankton bloom was of larger proportion than what we did in the area. So 40 million fish came home instead of a million. That offered some hope. […]

Pacific Ocean Hacker Speaks Out

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