World's biggest geoengineering experiment 'violates' UN rules

I think this is fantastic:

World's biggest geoengineering experiment 'violates' UN rules

A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian investigation can reveal.

Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a "blatant violation" of two international moratoria and the news is likely to spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit taking place in India this week.

Satellite images appear to confirm the claim by Californian Russ George that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed -- a geoengineering technique known as ocean fertilisation that he hopes will net lucrative carbon credits.

George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments

Scientists are debating whether iron fertilisation can lock carbon into the deep ocean over the long term, and have raised concerns that it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and lifeless waters, and worsen ocean acidification and global warming.

"It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later," said John Cullen , an oceanographer at Dalhousie University. "Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired."

Like... for example... the oil industry? Or the Industrial Revolution? Or the invention of agriculture? Our entire civilization is an "ecological manipulation". That's what "civilization" means. It's not just going to sort itself out on its own, you incomprehensible pinheads. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

George says his team of unidentified scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from US agencies like Nasa and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. He told the Guardian that it is the "most substantial ocean restoration project in history," and has collected a "greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before".

"We've gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilisation]," George said. "And the news is good news, all around, for the planet." [...]

"If rogue geoengineer Russ George really has misled this indigenous community, [blah blah blah]

Whatever, if Russ George does not have "Rogue Geoengineer" on his business cards, what the hell is wrong with him?

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21 Responses:

  1. Jay says:

    I'm not really clear on how this is different from the failed attempt to do the same in 2009...

    • Glen Raphael says:

      Different scale, different location. If it's worth trying once, it's probably worth trying several times. The effect of fertilization undoubtedly is going to be sensitive to things like the water temperature, time of year, etcetera.

      And the best way to figure out what it does is quite obviously to TRY it, repeatedly, keep track of relevant differences and try to measure the results. It's awesome that somebody is actually doing that. The people who whine about what might happen are lacking a suitable sense of scale. There is a LOT of ocean and we are changing it a LOT already - "pristine" was never an option. And it'll the easiest thing in the world to NOT dump iron there IF it turns out there are compelling reasons to stop.

  2. James says:

    Why spend millions on iron sulphate to make plankton eat carbon and sink when you could extract it for carbon neutral fuel instead? Sadly, though, PARC (yes, that PARC) fired the research team who did the work in that first link as soon as their patent issued, which does not bode well.

    • Ben says:

      Perhaps because the whole point is to get the stuff out of the carbon cycle altogether? Carbon-neutral isn't enough, for this to do any good it has to be hugely carbon-negative.

      Even if the entire world went (genuinely) carbon-neutral tomorrow, things would still keep getting worse for a good long while. The Earth is a big system; it'll probably take a thousand years or so to settle to a new equilibrium even once we stop pushing carbon into the atmosphere.

      (This, incidentally, is why all these schemes are bullshit. We're already screwed, and I seriously doubt there's anything we can do except damage control and disaster planning at this point.)

      • James says:

        I agree. My plan is to make a killing in the structural synthetic plastic/fiberglass lumber market from seawater carbon when the tech to extract it from fuel is mass produced, since structural plastic lumber has only recently been formulated in sufficiently fire resistant forms to pass ASME construction material fire codes. This will allow for massively carbon neutral capture and reforestation. Then I will start synthesizing fertilizer, and then engineer bacteria producing brazil nut meat-like foodstuffs from the same extracted carbon stock.

        Well, actually, that's more of a navel-gazing mastubatory fantasy that I keep handy when I want to believe that we are not all doomed, but you get the idea.

        • Ben says:

          Reforestation (or any other scheme which involves locking C into stuff which stays on the surface) doesn't have any hope of ever being enough. The coal- and oilfields were layed down over much of the Earth's surface over hundreds of millions of years; we'd need to put a good proportion of the total back to have any chance of making the climate changes stop, and there just isn't enough room on the surface for that.

          Also, of course, we'd have to find some way to pay back several hundred years' worth of energy debt; the one thing TFA's nutty scheme has going for it is that he's found a way of using solar energy, mostly for free, to convert large amounts of CO2 back into something that's insoluble in water.

          • James says:

            It's about 5 kg per square meter of land, which seems doable if we reforest the plains and grow brazil nut meat in vats instead of corn.

      • James says:

        s/extract it from fuel/extract it from seawater/
        s/massively carbon neutral/massively carbon negative/

  3. Will Sargent says:

    Well, it's not like he's going to kill the coral reefs. They're already beyond saving.

  4. Jake Nelson says:

    This plan's banned because it doesn't work, and may make things worse. At least it wasn't the "sulfate in atmosphere" plan, which both makes things worse and causes acid rain.

    I do totally agree geoengineering is necessary, and needs to happen ASAP, but it has to be something that won't actually make things worse, and most of the suggestions are terrible failures. Sometimes it's totally foreseeable (like the sulfate idiocy), sometimes we only know it's counterproductive until after actually trying it (painting roofs white).

    Only viable plan I've yet seen involved orbital solar panel arrays, but it'll be a few years before we can build them at sufficient scale to be effective and they'd require one of:
    1. periodic re-lift (or attached engines which need periodic refueling, but engines are so heavy they generally don't help),
    2. ionosphere repulsive support (which hasn't been tested at large scales and may distort the Earth's magnetic field if overused),
    3. be so cheap and disposable they could be allowed to re-enter and burn up,
    4. or be so damn big as to become a fixed ring around the Earth (which is staggeringly expensive and requires both worldwide agreement and masterful engineering).
    #2 is so far the best option, with the caveats noted. If an unforeseen advance made supercheap superdisposable solar frameworks, #3 might be better, but blahblah "miracle happens" "and a pony" blah blah.

    • Dave Pease says:

      is it generally accepted that it won't work? i see a lot more of 'we're not sure what it'll do and we're afraid to find out' than 'it won't work' in most of the coverage.

      • Nick Thompson says:

        Last I heard, the geoengineering techniques on offer will not balance the expected emissions. When I talked to somebody who was actively working on the sulfate aerosol approach, his take was that it would buy us some time.

      • Jake Nelson says:

        There's been some limited analysis after previous attempts, and indications were that secondary effects in the wrong direction roughly equaled the gains. A lot of it's still being analyzed. It's a lot like payload-to-fuel math in rocketry (you need more thrust, so you need more fuel, fuel is heavy, so you need more thrust... and you end up having a very low effective max payload or you waste a lot of fuel) - two steps forward, one step back, except it's more like 1.9 steps back - and when you factor in real-world frictions and all the contributing-to-the-problem emissions from production and deployment, you end up slightly negative (and out a fair bit of money that could have done something mildly helpful instead of mildly harmful).

        • Ship your factory to make solar power satatilite factories to the moon. Then, use lunar resources to build them. It seems you can make a Kevlar sling to throw stuff into orbit from the moon, which could be a win for launch costs.

  5. brianvan says:

    I'm amused by this because the whole thing is a ploy to sell carbon offsets in the end. So the powers-that-be who have blessed or only mildly chided the activities of the already-rich-and-powerful are not okay with people making money off the environment's back - if they're not the ones who were already grandfathered in through corruption!

    Of course, that makes Russ George an indefensible dick too, but the reasoning for that is clearly far, far above the level where the mainstream press entered the fray, so.

  6. Tom Lord says:

    I wonder if and when "just war theory" will meet provocations like unsustainable carbon emissions and other environmental sins.

  7. Glenn says:

    > "It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later,"

    "We know might occur"? Johnny wields the weasel words like it's his job.

    "Impossible to describe"?

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