This story is about a proposal, by Planktos, Inc., to stimulate large-scale natural marine plankton blooms by "iron seeding", in-situ, for the purpose of scouring carbon dioxide from the air. Why do this? One reason is that if our collective response to Climate Change is limited to lessening future CO2 emissions with better technologies today, these same technologies may be used more intensely in the future. Such a narrow focus also overlooks legacy emissions of CO2 that will remain in the stratosphere for decades, possibly capable of cascading us, in one highly uncertain scenario, to a catastrophy which no amount of new technology or life style changing could reverse. The Planktos proposal would mitigate both the legacy CO2 emissions and future emissions from higher performing technologies. The response time for plankton stimulation is relatively short and done with more finality than other biotic mitigation techniques, such as tree planting. And, it does something crucial that "carbon sequestration", can not, which we'll explain a bit later.You've already seen Planktos' celebrity mascot, Pico, who is only a few microns in diameter (opening photo). Their communications man Dave introduced Pico thusly: "Our wild and crazy Planktos mascot, Pico, is our coccolithophorid sidekick. He runs on chlorophyll & carotenoids, forms massive blooms, sequesters his CO2 inhalations in CaCO3 scales, and then sinks in great numbers to form deposits of chalk".
Like other celebrities, Pico is gregarious. All he needs is his summer dole of iron and he is surrounded by orders of magnitude more friends.
Because he is not expensive to feed, we thought that perhaps Pico could help powerful Australian and US politicians get out of denial and at the same time give regular folks something hopeful to support. Who knows, but with enough iron, like Popeye and his spinach, Pico might turn into SuperPlankton: Defender of Outspoken Climate Scientists?
For a more technical view of the Planktos proposal, we interviewed David Kubiak of Planktos, Inc.
How might large scale infusions of bio-available iron affect marine plankton communities?
First off, we are not talking about "large" infusions of bio-available iron. We are talking are about very dilute infusions over very large areas. Iron only has to be replenished in parts per trillion.
Our projects will add something on the order of 50 tons of iron to seed an ocean surface area of approximately 10,000 square kilometers in diameter. This would be only a few percent of the scale of naturally occurring blooms.
Dust storms have delivered thousands of tons of iron dust to these same areas [blue indicates the zones with greatest potential for increased plankon productivity] many times in the past, provoking huge blooms, and with no observed ill effects. Moreover, once an area is no longer iron-deficient, adding further iron has no biological effect. "Large scale infusions" of iron, in the sense you imply, are therefore inefficient and pointless since most of it simply sinks out of the biologically active surface system and into the abyss.
The really important point here is that we are only proposing "restoration" of phytoplankton to 1980 levels of health and activity as defined by NASA and NOAA scientists. Their studies show a 25% decline in Pacific plankton populations in the last 25 years and a 6~9% die off globally.
Considering that 1980 levels of marine photosynthesis metabolized about 50 gigatons of CO2 annually, the recent shortfall equals nearly 3 gigatons of lost photosynthetic capacity or approximately half of all industrial and automotive emissions each year.
Returning plankton populations to 1980 levels would neutralize about 50% of industrial society's greenhouse gas emissions, and we feel that is about all you can or should ask a single ecosystem to contribute to our self-inflicted climate wars. The rest of the problem must eventually be handled by our own species, changing our basic energy systems and insane consumption patterns.
Are you confident that the outcomes will be positive or at least that any negative impacts will be transitory? The inference I took from your website narrative, that airborne iron deposition at relatively high rates is an ambient condition of past centuries and is a condition which your business would be replicating, seems open to challenge.
In answer to your first query: "Yes".
Based on a century of ocean plankton science and the 10 international experiments on iron fertilization over the last 15 years we are confident that the scale, methods and technologies of the work we are planning will have positive impacts on all fronts, improving water quality, buffering surface water acidity, recharging the marine food chain, and safely sequestering enormous amounts of CO2 to help slow climate change.
Regarding the latter part of your question, it is pretty difficult to respond to an unspecified "challenge". However, addressing what you have specified:
1) The 25% falloff in ocean iron deposition is a NASA documented fact.
2) That Planktos will be mitigating that shortfall by replenishing marine iron micronutrients in concentrations similar to dust storm deposition is also a fact.
3) And the fact that plankton receiving this iron supplement would uptake and utilize it just as they do wind-borne sources is also well established thanks to at least ten international studies of the effect.
After nearly two centuries of observing plankton blooms, mariners and ocean scientists have yet to report any persisting "negative impacts" other than transient drops in other local nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorous), which naturally time limit these bloom durations to 60~90 days.
Planktos is planning "bonsai replication" of these natural iron seeding events, and will be closely monitoring their brief cycles of development.
With this methodology, the factors most often mentioned as risks of negative or unintended consequences are a.) employing it too near coastal zones afflicted with toxic algal species, and b.) pushing beyond literal "restoration" activities to seed unprecedented concentrations of new plankton growth.
Regarding the first issue, we are fully aware of "red tide" type phenomena and will be planting our "ocean forest" patches well out in the deep oceans, partially to ensure complete coastal safety and partially because our true target areas, the vast iron-deficient HNLC "desolate zones," are in the blue water sea.
HNLC is oceanographer-speak for "High Nutrient, Low Chlorophyll" and indicates zones of very low productivity, i.e., very little plant life or photosynthesis, which is why their water is so brilliantly blue. Indeed the bluest seas are virtual marine deserts and thus our main areas of focus and activity.
The oft-cited potential coastal hazard is in fact pretty illusory, since most coastal waters are iron-replete, and adding further iron therefore produces no new plankton growth at all.
Regarding the second scale limit issue, we actually do not believe there would be significant side effects from pushing plankton populations a few percent above their normal 1980s' levels. That baseline was arbitrarily set by the NASA satellite technology of the period, which offered the first reliable marine productivity census in history.
Since we do know that CO2 concentrations have been steadily increasing for the last hundred years, it is almost certain that the true marine productivity/ocean plankton baseline was actually much higher a half century ago.
However, without reliable data we do not know that for a fact. We therefore feel it safer to subscribe to the precautionary principle and advocate plankton restoration to "known levels of health" and no farther, and draw a bright line there.
As mentioned above, observing this degree of caution and restoring only the most conservative estimate of lost plankton (6%) will still absorb and sequester nearly 3 billion tons of CO2 without entering any new areas of ecological uncertainty.
Iron complexes deposited from all natural Aeolian processes are certainly not going to have the same exact salt compositions and bio-availability characteristics that the Planktos infusions will have.
Not all health store iron supplements or even all organic calf livers have "the same exact salt compositions" either, but they all pretty effectively deliver the goods. And certainly all the "natural Aeolian processes, historically and presently" that you refer to also vary widely among themselves. All that really matters is that the delivery matrix disassociates easily from the iron content and is ecologically inert or benign.
Bioavailability: Once in marine waters, this is largely a function of the iron particles' scale with sub-micron sizes being best.
I am also hoping that you can offer a take-home insight for those who lack advance degrees in the sciences.
The most important insight to communicate is this: the most urgent planetary crisis we currently face is not global warming; it is the widening CO2-induced disaster in the seas. In tandem with the escalating plankton die-off, marine surface waters are now suffering increasingly toxic levels of carbonic acidity. Together these effects are threatening not just vital ecosystems, fisheries and the entire marine food chain, but also the planet's primary oxygen supply.
So as Prof. Harold Hill would say (to those "who lack advanced degrees"), "we got trouble, my friends, trouble right here in every river and city. Trouble with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "C" and that stands for CO2."
Restoring our plankton allies in the seas could help us defuse up to half of that trouble. The rest is up to us.
For other references, Planktos invites TreeHugger readers to see the links, papers and slide show on their website.
=== end interview ====
If you react like we first did to this information, you may be thinking that Planktos' dream will be a feel-good rationalization for utility companys, lobbyists, and traders, who want to maintain "business as usual." This sort of behavior would, of course, be no different than owners of hybrid vehicles feeling they are entitled to drive more miles than those with SUV's or owners of compact fluorescent bulbs feeling they can leave their lights on when out of the room.
Some scenario thinking ended our cynical first appraisal. Link in the overlaying issues of Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, collapsing fisheries, severe hurricanes, the possibility of tying carbon trades to the satellite-verified effects, a rapidly approaching tipping point in media awareness of the climate issue, and rapid growth in solar and wind power product sales. Green design has its own momentum.
Finally, we'd like to point out that we are aware of the historic coverage of the ocean "eco-hacking" idea. Universities are making their contributions as well.
If environmental groups can sponsor rainforest protection for carbon sequestration, there's no reason why utility companies can't contemplate the same for plankton. Why not work together? Given the risk of climate change, we think Pico deserves his extra iron.