Did Russ George's Geoengineering experiment actually work?

russ george
© Russ George

TreeHugger Emeritus John Laumer has been covering Russ George, the "geo-vigilante" for years. Besides John, almost nobody has written positive things about Russ George until the climate denying Gore-hating National Review wrote a rave story about how George's controversial dump of iron sulphate actually worked. (See Mat's coverage here) TreeHugger asked John Laumer for his view of this article; he responded with a long interview with Russ George. The views expressed here are those of John Laumer and not necessarily those of the rest of us here at TreeHugger.

Iron seeding of the high seas was back in the news this Earth Day, 2014. Good timing – with Blue Planet in the Emergency Room and no ‘Obamacare’ equivalent to help stabilize our home - though the coverage came from a most unexpected source, The National Review.

Robert Zubrin’s The Pacific’s Salmon Are Back — Thank Human Ingenuity is narratively excellent, and Zubrin is onto something politically. Unfortunately, the article’s credibility suffers from bits of talking point nonsense interjected here and there (as discussed below). I also disagreed with Zubrin’s characterization of those opposed to iron seeding research as anti-freedom. It’s not ‘anti-freedom’ attitude that’s behind the iron seeding opposition. It’s outrage over having lost the environmental policy high ground as well being themselves, I surmise, in denial over how deadly serious circumstances are. (Hence, the importance of the earth-in-the-emergency room simile.)

I contacted Russ George, our local iron man, about Zubrin’s story and asked for his [Russ’] comments about the his latest iron seeding project off British Columbia, which, it turns out, had truly amazing, positive impact – from a mere 120 tones of iron sulfide, very thinly applied over an area of the ocean a little larger than the surface of Lake Erie (25,657 km2) , - giving a result that Zubrin fairly termed “…a stunningly over-the-top success.”

Russ’ reaction to Zubrin’s Salmon Are Back story was that in spite of the scientific faults it was good. But, he added this important thought…

Let’s not make this a story all about CO2 and Carbon… it’s really about whether the ocean pastures come back to the abundance of life that they and we enjoyed 100 years ago. My hypothesis is that if we can help replenish and restore the ocean pastures we will see the results in the one thing that mankind is most connected to the ocean by, it’s FISH!

Indeed my experiment, which at a size of 30,000+ sq. km. is perhaps the largest single experiment of its kind ever conducted, has demonstrated that the fish come back in incredible abundance, quickly… All species of fish have responded but the best data comes from those fish who swim back to us instead of making us go hunt them down.

I thought Zubrin seemed to twist basic water and atmospheric chemistry to justify continued high-carbon emission levels.

“ Furthermore, just as increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have accelerated the rate of plant growth on land (by 14 percent since 1958, according to NASA satellite data), so increased levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean could lead to a massive expansion of flourishing sea life,…”

While NASA data did indeed, as Zubrin cited, document increased terrestrial plant growth attributable to increased atmospheric CO2, the NASA finding must be understood in light of something else. Though not mentioned by Zubrin, atmospheric CO2-spurred terrestrial plant growth increases have contributed to the relative sterility of deep oceans by reducing wind erosion of iron rich soils, in turn reducing the natural deposition of iron on the seas, as had been the norm for millennia. In other words, iron seeding can be viewed more as climate adaptation mechanism – mitigating a little-discussed secondary impact of excess CO2 emissions - instead of some synthetic ‘geo-engineering’ scheme cooked up by defense contractors. (My words.)

As to the apparent justification of adding more CO2 to the atmosphere (and eventually to the sea), that prospect jeopardizes not only the possibility of mariculture but marine life itself. The carbon bomb (my term) long ago detonated is still raining down more then enough CO2!. As Russ George more elegantly explained:

There is the twin problem of CO2 on this planet. On one hand there is the CO2 that we are increasingly emitting that adds to what we have already emitted; I call that tomorrow’s CO2. On the other hand there is that CO2 already emitted, a half a trillion tonnes directly from burning of fossil fuels and almost as much from land use change… call it a trillion tonnes of yesterday’s excess CO2. The problem with CO2 is that in these sufficiently large amounts it depresses ocean pH and upends the largest ecosystem on the planet, the oceans. Yesterday’s CO2 is in effect already a lethal dose which will equilibrate into the ocean water as carbonic acid, acidifying the ocean, and stopping most of ocean life from having access to the calcium and silicon it needs to survive.

© Russ George

We did some formal interviewing via Skype, Russ and I, a few snippets from which I insert here.

Who influenced you most to do what you have done?

I’ve been most influenced by John Martin who as an incredible experimentalist and naturalist collected the data that allowed him to unravel the Gordian Knot of how parts per trillion amounts of iron in the ocean control ocean photosynthesis in that vast majority of the ocean that is beyond the continental shelves.

Others I have had the good fortune of knowing who coached me to not be afraid to work outside the box were Linus Pauling, Edward Teller, and Art Schalow all neighbors of mine when I lived in Palo Alto and though all nearing the end of their long lives and frail of flesh were still as sharp as any intellect could ever be.

Tell us more about Martin’s hypothesis and how it was recently corroborated.

Researchers in the recent confirming paper took on both sides of John Martin’s iron hypothesis story. On one hand, they studied and proved that indeed he was right that the ice ages had been preceded by dusty times which created much more plankton blooming and drawing down CO2, removing the thin “greenhouse gas” sheet that kept the planet warm… and it got cold.

Martin was absolutely right!

One the other hand they took on the skeptics who have claimed that Martin was wrong, not because they had data like his to prove otherwise, but rather because they claimed their speculations were more plausible. The basis of their [skeptics’] claims were that some unknown major event provided an anomalous abundance of nitrate, and that this mystery event resulted in the blooms that drew down the CO2 instead of Martin’s iron bearing dust. The researchers corroborating Marti’s ideas showed, by collecting samples that would have revealed such anomalous nitrate macronutrients were in the system, were in fact NOT there.

Martin’s gadflies and their armchair refutations of his great work are absolutely wrong!

What might Martin’s confirmed hypothesis, and your extension of it offer for the future of Earth? Does it provide hope?

The ONLY means to deal with the already administered deadly overdose is to use ocean life to repurpose that CO2 away from becoming acid and instead turn it into ocean life, biomass carbon. The only way to grow enough ocean life is to lend a helping hand in the form of replenishing the dust that has gone missing.

While we ought to do everything possible to not add a second lethal dose of CO2 into our environment it won’t matter if we do if we do nothing about the first lethal dose.

For further explanation of the interrelationship of land and sea to atmospheric CO2 I suggest you also have a look at my own post on this subject.

What is your goal as you face your own mortality?

Facing my own mortality is something I’ve had to do, as going on 15 years ago, I was told by a raft of medical specialists that I had 6mos – 2yrs to live. I had no choice but to dive into the research stacks of the Stanford med school and see what I might find; fortunately I found the cure for my condition, not accepted and largely opposed by the medical community but for me with nothing to lose worth a shot… and it worked. There is nothing like being told to lie down and die by people whose only risk is that they might face criticism for taking a chance on life to make one not want to ignore them and take the chance.

As they say about pioneering … one discovers more arrows in your back than your front.

Can you debunk claims of ecological or political risk long made by opponents? In other words, after the last field trials, did initial results support in any way or were they even consistent with claims made by your opponents?

The critics and n'er-do-wells who live to conjure up fears and speculations have made all manner of claims about what might happen in the ocean if one helps the ocean pastures bloom.

First off the ocean pastures are blooming less than ever by and so returning them to the healthy and abundant state they and we enjoyed 100 years ago seems unlikely to result in some ecological problem. Indeed this is what we observed… the ocean came back to life in all manner of ways.

One idea that has been pushed in opposition is the notion that “ocean dead zones” come from too much plankton… our blooms might do the same… What is not said by those gadflies is that we can only work in regions of the ocean far out to sea and where the water is miles deep… such locations are as different from the shallow near shore regions where ocean dead zones exist as are grasslands and mountain tops…

The latest device to call into question replenished and restored ocean pastures and blooms of plankton is that it might create toxic blooms, perhaps those producing “domoic acid. “ Since the ocean routinely blooms in many areas in grand natural abundance and did so in the past to a far greater extent this “domoic acid” boogey man is not one that is seen as a common feature of the naturally blooming ocean nor is there a record of it being the scourge of ocean pastures of 100 years ago. Bzzzzt!

© Russ George

Thus ended our interview; but there is more I’d like to mention – things touched on in passing during preceding discussion.

I wondered if, after the Canadian Federal Government sent a SWAT team to confiscate his team’s field data before it could be fully processed, preventing the publication of papers, environmental activists might now be thinking that maybe, just maybe, Russ’ goal was aligned with their own? See if you can guess his response.

We’ve both noted that people have a hard time grasping the concept of the growth-limiting nutrient and so I put this addendum together to tag onto the end of this post. Hope it helps.

Analogy 1: In the 19th Century Vitamin C became growth limiting trace nutrient for continued growth of the British Empire. Sailors got sick without a decent diet. Limes, a good source of Vitamin C, were issued to sailors to keep them healthy enough to keep the trade going. Once vitamin C was no longer a limiting resource, sailing ship design and navigation skills/routes became the limiting factors.

Analogy 2: Interest rates are one of the commonly understood ‘rate limiting’ factors that govern economic growth. Assuming factors such as raw materials, distribution infrastructure capacity, skilled labor, and so on, are sufficient; changes to the interest rate can have a powerful effect on an economy. Obviously, if the labor force is unskilled and not properly educated no amount of interest rate manipulation will make a difference either way (a circumstance we may now be facing).

In the plant kingdom, commonly required micronutrients, also called trace elements, include chlorine (Cl), boron (B), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and molybdenum (Mo). Absence or severe limitation of one of these to below the ppb level can be severely limiting to plant growth. Even with excessive (luxuriant) phosphorus, nitrogen potassium or sulfur, plants, including algae, a deficiency of a single micronutrient results in low plankton production, limiting also the food available to whales and fish. A marine desert is then created over vast areas, where once fish and aquatic life flourished.

In agriculture, the long standing principal of resource limitation is referred to as “Leibigs law of the minimum” which is (per Wikipedia) is stated as “…that growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor).”

Tags: Fish | Oceans