A minor triumph for common sense
UN study trashes iron antidote to climate change
Back in May 2007, we called it a "brainy, or a hare-brained scheme, depending on your perspective".
The proposal - "mooted for several years" - was to "throw iron filings off a boat into the ocean depths and - hey presto! - you have a ready-made fertiliser of plankton. This will then absorb massive amounts of the carbon dioxide we're all belching out on the surface and that contributes to adverse climate change". See: London Calling on a balmy (or is it barmy?) idea
However, the following year (2008), the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity imposed a moratorium on ocean fertilization experiments outside coastal waters, to await further evidence of its effectiveness.
And last week, good science appears to have triumphed over non-sense, as a UN-backed study declared the idea had "a low chance of success".
Fertilizing Oceans Seen Fruitless In Climate Fight
By Alister Doyle
1 February 2011
Fertilizing the oceans to boost the growth of tiny plants that soak up greenhouse gases is unlikely to work as a way to slow climate change, a U.N.-backed study showed on Monday.
Such "geo-engineering" schemes would be hard to monitor and were likely to store away only small amounts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.
"Geo-engineering schemes involving ocean fertilization to affect climate have a low chance of success," according to the 20-page study by the Commission, part of the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The review, by scientists in seven countries, said 13 experiments in recent years showed faded optimism that iron dust or other nutrients could spur growth of microscopic marine plants and permanently suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Twenty years ago, scientists had optimistically reckoned that one tonne of iron could make the seas absorb 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, it said. But one recent study suggested that one tonne of iron would only soak up 5,000 tonnes of the gas.
Firms including Climos, Atmocean Inc and the Ocean Nourishment Corp. have been looking into ocean fertilization technology as a way of offsetting emissions of greenhouse gases from factories, power plants and cars.
But the study said that some absorbed carbon simply returns to the atmosphere. Just one to 15 percent falls as what scientists call "marine snow" -- dead plants, animals or their faeces -- to be stored on the deep ocean floor.
"At best it can make a small contribution" to storing industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, Doug Wallace, lead author of the report at the Leibniz-Institut fur Meereswissenschaften, told Reuters.
In 2008, the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity imposed a moratorium on ocean fertilization experiments outside coastal waters, awaiting wider scientific evidence.
The study said that some experiments had successfully triggered a bloom of plankton and bacteria -- such one in 2002 that produced a patch visible to satellites in the north-east Pacific Ocean.
But it was impossible to say how much of that carbon stayed in the oceans. And the extra plants might help fish grow in some areas by providing more food, but might also rob nutrients from other parts of the ocean.
Monitoring was vital, especially if ocean fertilization were ever to qualify for carbon credits under a U.N. deal meant to avert more floods, heatwaves, mudslides, or rising sea levels.
But it was far easier to monitor forests, which also soak up carbon as they grow. "A tree might burn next year but then at least you know it didn't work," Wallace said. "In the oceans you have a serious measurement problem."
The study was also skeptical about measures to use huge pipes to suck deep, nutrient-rich waters closer to the surface where sunlight could spur more plant growth. And it did not even look at the possible costs of marine geo-engineering.