MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling on a lesson from "Frankenstein"

Published by MAC on 2013-03-19
Source: Nostromo Research, Reuters

"So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein - more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" - from "Frankenstein; or the Making of a Modern Prometheus" by Mary Shelley, London 1818.


Ever since Mary Shelley conceived her fictional character, Frankenstein, we've been accustomed to "mad" science - where a discovery of potential benefit to human knowledge is harnessed to ignoble ends.

Take the "splitting of  the atom". In the early days, we were told that nuclear fission could provide boundlesss electricity to an energy-starved world.  In reality, that justification was merely tacked on to the military ambitions, which had led directly to the holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As for the "civil" nuclear option, this looks even less tenable nowadays, in the light of what happened at Three Mile Island, Tchernobyl and Fukushima.

Recently, some scientists claimed that dumping iron into the oceans would reduce the impacts of adverse global climate change. Thankfully, other scientists have strongly questioned the proposal.

But now, another scientific group says that the same metal, when washed into the sea, provides a "vital nutrient...[for] everything from tiny plankton to fish and whales".

True - iron, like manganese, when absorbed as a trace element by living creatures (including homo sapiens) is essential to healthy organic growth.

However, in large quantities, it may prove toxic. Who knows what the longterm impacts would be of releasing significant amounts of iron into the sea?

This latest idea comes from scientists, mainly drawn from the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI,) who carried out their research in Greenland's offshore waters.

Let's test the implications of their work a little further...

Iron in the sole

As we've long pointed out, steel production - to which inputs of iron and manganese are essential - is among the three worst sectoral contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Last  week, the citizens of Greenland went to the polls and voted in a new government. The key issue they had to decide was whether there should be a major increase in extraction of the country's finite natural resources (see: Greenlanders vote - but for what kind of future?)

The largest currently-proposed mining project comes from UK-listed London Mining plc. The company  wants to dig up a huge deposit of iron ore and supply the product to Chinese steel mills; thus inevitably adding to the toll in  global greenhouse gas emissions.

Ironically, the iron is now available for exploitation precisely because "global warming" has created an alarming increase in Arctic ice melt during recent years.

Arguably, if the WHOI group is right in their recent calculations, the iron should be left in place so that glacial run-off can release more of it to feed oceanic life.

On the other hand, if mining does proceed, why not conserve at least some of the ferrous content in the tailings - and dump this into the sea?

Fanciful as these ideas might seem at present, history is replete with similar instances of hubristic, if not distinctly perverted, science, slinking from the drawing-board and impacting on all our lives.

Were she alive today, Ms Shelley would surely understand the moral of this particular tale.

[London Calling is authored by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessairly represent those of any other group or orgnsisation. Reproduction is welcomed, under a Creativee Commons Licence].

Greenland adds nutrient to ocean in side-effect of thaw: study

By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle


10 March 2013

Oslo - A melt of Greenland's ice is washing large amounts of the nutrient iron into the Atlantic Ocean where it might aid marine life in a rare positive side-effect of climate change, a study showed on Sunday.

Greenland's thaw, which is raising world sea levels, is also adding about 300,000 metric tons (330,693 tons) of iron a year to the North Atlantic, based on projections from the muddy melt water of three glaciers in the southwest, it said.

That is similar to the amount of iron blown to the region in dust by winds. Scientists say that iron is a vital nutrient and that a lack of the element in parts of the oceans limits growth of everything from tiny plankton to fish and whales.

"We suggest that glacial runoff serves as a significant source of bio-available iron to surrounding coastal oceans," the scientists, mainly at the U.S. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), wrote in the journal Nature Geoscience.

"We would expect this glacial contribution of iron to the North Atlantic Ocean to continue to increase under future warming scenarios," they added.

The findings show that "as glaciers and ice sheets melt there may be other effects than just increased sea level," said Maya Bhatia, who was leader of the study at WHOI and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Arctic, Antarctica

Scientists only started to examine the chemistry of glacial runoff in the past decade and nutrients carried into seas from the Arctic to Antarctica, she told Reuters.

"We believe that our study adds iron to that list of glacially derived nutrients," she said. Phytoplankton, or tiny marine plants, also need nutrients such as nitrates or phosphates to grow.

The scientists found large amounts or iron in waters flowing from under the three Greenland glaciers. They did not measure how much iron reached the open ocean or study if it was boosting growth of marine life.

Some past studies have shown blooms of microscopic algae coinciding with peak runoff from the Greenland ice sheet in summer.

Separately, some experts have proposed dumping iron into the oceans, mainly the Southern Ocean where it is in short supply, to combat climate change that a U.N. panel of scientists blames for causing floods, droughts and rising sea levels.

The idea is that iron will cause new blooms of algae that absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the carbon would then fall to the seabed when the algae die, removing it from the atmosphere.

Bhatia said it was not yet known if iron from Greenland could be a side-effect of warming that would cause algal blooms and offset climate change.

The U.N. panel of climate scientists has estimated that world sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 cms (7-23 inches) this century, more if a thaw of Greenland and Antarctica accelerates.

Sea levels have been rising at about 3 mm a year in recent years and Greenland has been contributing. Rising seas are a big threat to low-lying areas from Miami to Bangladesh.

(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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