Meet The Man Who Just Geo-Hacked The Ocean

Russ George recently dumped 120 tons of iron ore into the ocean to take the idea of geoengineering the ocean’s plankton to suck up carbon dioxide from theory to reality. He’s been both celebrated and vilified for his actions. Here is why he did it.

David Biello

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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[/url 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[/url] spoke with him on October 19.

An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Scientific American: How did this Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. project start?

Russ George: 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.

There have been three volcanic events in the last 100 years paired with record sockeye salmon runs. That’s pretty good data. Those fish don’t do fishy science, they do good science. Their physical bodies are data, you can track where they’ve been because of the discrete isotopic characteristics of different parts of the ocean.

But did it bury any carbon? Previous studies suggested that most of it will end up back in the atmosphere.

We don’t know that yet. I don’t agree with you that most of it will end up back in the atmosphere. Look at the [Victor] Smetacek paper [this year in Nature]. A significant amount of carbon ended up on the seafloor. Diatoms [a type of shelled algae] are big carbon sinkers because of their stony shells and powered buoyancy. When they run out of power they sink.

Tell me about the 120 metric tons of iron you dumped.

We didn’t choose the simplest form of iron and dump it in the ocean. We did a carefully thought through, planned process that asked, "What forms of iron does the ocean use today and historically? How might we determine what’s the right form or composition or method of preparation or method of distribution of the forms of iron that we know are effective?" So we had an experimental matrix that we believe will answer that and we have the data now.

Mother Nature blows dust in the wind, which carries fully reduced iron oxides. That’s the form of iron in dust in the wind. Upstart scientists, humans, say, "We can do better than Mother Nature. We won’t use that natural source of iron that nature uses; we’ll use commercial fertilizer. We’ll use iron sulfate because iron sulfate has greater solubility and greater biological availability."

We tested both. Our data will tell us. Do you get a different plankton bloom if you exactly mimic Mother Nature than if you exactly mimic some supplier of agricultural chemicals?

Where did you get the iron?

It’s an extremely commonly available material. Iron ore dust is in use everywhere. Australia sells 600 million tons of it to China [to make steel]. The amount of sweepings, the fugitive dust from the 600 million tons shipped from Australia to China is infinitely more than we used.

We’re not at liberty to divulge precise details of suppliers and such. Anybody associated with this project is viciously attacked.

Why did you pick the location you did?

Where could you do a more perfect experiment than in between a normal, natural similar phenomenon and an enormous unnatural absence? The best experimental design is to go in between two natural controls, which is where our bloom was placed. That’s why [the late marine biologist] John Martin picked west of the Galapagos, because those islands are a massive source of iron. Here’s a massive iron stimulated bloom that goes off to the west of the Galapagos for hundreds of miles and here’s the most iron-depleted ocean in the southeast Pacific.

The best place to do science on this and get knowledge is to put the bloom in between. See what natural iron-stimulated blooms produce and what the non-blooming ocean has. Test whether or not the characteristics of what you’ve created [are] different in any way to a natural system.

So what did you observe at sea?

Life appeared. The nightly migration of zooplankton from the thermocline [a layer of in the ocean that marks the transition from warmer surface waters to colder deep waters] to the surface, we saw that. Copepods, salps, all the little fish. We have thousands and thousands of biological samples now going under microscopes around the world to be identified and quantified. We didn’t have a ship with 58 scientists. We didn’t have a lab on board, and it’s not a great big ship with the stability to do microscopy on board. What we could do is work 24/7 and the Haida crew on the ship worked literally 24/7. Their job was to collect an unimaginably vast collection of samples.

We had instrumentation of every sort. Does Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution] have two Slocum gliders? They may have one. The Canadian Institute for Ocean Science provided us with two gliders. We talked to [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] as the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. and said our intention is to go out to the eddies, identify an eddy and there try to understand how it could be restored and replenished. They say they didn’t know what we were doing.

We started by using ships of opportunity to collect water samples last December for months. This is not willy-nilly. This is not go out, throw iron in the water and stay there for as little as possible because the costs are so high. We were gathering baseline data months ahead. We sent gliders out long before the ship set sail to survey the whole region. We have baseline data for the whole region, on natural blooms and eddies that were blooming and weren’t blooming to get the full picture. That’s indicative of good, careful science planning

This is world-class science done by one of the least likely suspects: a small, native peoples village. That’s the charm of the story.

That’s kind of a preliminary glimpse. Now there is an incredible amount of data to plow through. The book has to be read and we’re trying to get to that job.

How long before you share the data or report some results?

We have 10,000 water samples to be analyzed for 20 different characteristics. The first few hundred samples we sent to a commercial lab to give us a glimpse to make a determination of the ultimate cost. We sent them three weeks ago and no peep out of them yet. It takes a long time and a lot of money.

Read the rest of the interview with George at Scientific American.

From ScientificAmerican.com (find the original story here); reprinted with permission.

Scientific American is a trademark of Scientific American, Inc., used with permission.

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