Iron Fertilisation

Good, at least this idea is going to be properly looked at:

Scientists are considering a plan to combat climate change by dumping millions of tons of iron into the ocean to alter its chemical make-up.

They believe the iron could act as a “fertiliser”, promoting the growth of tons of plankton that would soak up carbon dioxide from the surrounding sea water. When the plankton died, their bodies would sink into the deepest waters and sediments, where the carbon would be locked up indefinitely.

The theory, known as “ocean fertilisation”, has long caused controversy among marine scientists, many of whom doubted that it could work. This week leading researchers will meet at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for a scientific conference to discuss the idea.

The last time I ran through the numbers on this I think I came up with a figure of a few cents per tonne of  CO2 removed: that, of course, on the assumption that it actually works. Actually having a scientific meeting to discuss it is a great idea. For, at present, we\’ve got two highly partisan sides:

Russ George, chief executive of Planktos, said adding a single ton of iron could remove as much as 100,000 tons of dissolved CO2 from the oceans.

Russ is running a company which would dearly love to be allowed to get going, to sell the offsets and also, attract more investors.

Dr David Santillo, a senior scientist at the Greenpeace research laboratories at Exeter University, said iron fertilisation was a foolish idea.

David doesn\’t want there to be a solution to climate change that doesn\’t involve a radical change in society.

While my instinctive sympathies are with Russ (good to see a man trying to make a buck) I do think it would be a good idea to actually study the evidence and find out whether it actually works. Which is, I assume, what the meeting of scientists is all about.

7 comments on “Iron Fertilisation

  1. Sounds like the Biofuels saga all over again. Price of iron rockets as demand from “ocean fertilisation” increases.
    (So next time you see kids chucking shopping trolleys into the river – they are just doing their bit for the environment.)

    Tim adds: Iron’s pretty cheap actually, a few hundred dollars a tonne. Fine powder (I actually looked this up once) is about twice the price of raw material. You don’t make it by grinding it down, you make it as powder to begin with. We churn out tens of millions of tonnes (maybe hundreds) of iron a year (usually known as steel) and if this fertilisation does in fact work we might need a few tens of thousands of tonnes of iron powder a year. Might cause a small bubble in powder manufacture (a hundred thousand tonnes a year I think) but not in the basic raw material: it’s trivial.

  2. The information about atmospheric warming imparts particular significance to the task of determining the real-life dynamics of the biosphere. The actual contributions of the land and ocean biota’s have not been accurately determined, although there is a great body of literature on the subject.
    Indeed both quantification and qualification of the “carbon cycle” has been handled badly by the UNFCC and WCRP. With simplistic assumptions and generalized parameters that are formatted by “climate scientists “with little understanding of the interconnected and overlapping oscillations of dynamic energy and chemical exchangers far from equilibrium in a dynamic state of self organization

    The extensive scientific discussion of global warming causes a natural wish to relate this process to possible changes in the amount and dynamics of terrestrial and oceanic vegetation(or as Umberto Uno says Crisis sells!). Does this process influence variations in the amount and diversity of plants? Plausible yes, from a metrological perspective. However this is a subset of the total ecosystem and has less importance then either biogeochemical, or biologic parameters.

    In 1961, (the paradox of the plankton) Hutchinson posed his classic question: “How is it possible for a number of species to coexist in a relatively isotrophic or unstructured environment, all competing for the same sorts of materials?”

    Hutchinson gave the particular example of the phytoplankton, from which the paradox is named. Most species of phytoplankton are autotrophic, requiring light, CO2 and about 17 mineral elements, not all of which will be limiting in any particular waters. Yet considerably more species than implied by this can coexist, although in a continued state of increasing and decreasing populations in self organization away from equilibrium in response to environmental and competitive changes ranging from seconds to centuries.

    Changes to absorption and emission of nutrients are also responsive to changes in both the type and spectra of radiation, these inhibit some populations and enhance others.

    Indeed what we can see is the ecological communities of microflora, changing rapidly to meet their changing levels of nutrients and energy is a Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction

    Recent work by two theoretical ecologists (Huisman & Weissing, 1999; 2001),has shown that competition for resources by as few as three species can result in long-term oscillations, even in the traditionally convergent models of plankton species growth. For as few as five species, apparently chaotic behavior can emerge. Huisman and Weissing propose these phenomena as one possible new explanation of the paradox of the plankton, in which the number of co-existing plankton species far exceeds the number of limiting resources, in direct contradiction of theoretical predictions. Continuously fluctuating species levels can support more species than a steady, stable equilibrium distribution.

    Their results show that external factors are not necessary to maintain non-equilibrium conditions; the inherent complexity of the “simple” model itself can be sufficient.

    The publication of dubious ‘catastrophic ’predictions for the oceans ability to maintain its biological role of atmospheric moderation are simply “creationist wastepaper” the ability of biogenic adaptability is already genetically available “banked for a rainy day so to speak”. Been there done that ,got the T-shirt and the DNA!

    Indeed the simplistic studies of similar taxa, or specific nutrient behaviour response, preclude predictability.

    Indeed what we do know is the observation of a competitive market with winners, losers, coexisting cooperatives, niche specialists etc.its called Evolution and in the ‘microbiological world” evolution is a two way highway.

  3. Erm, aren’t we just in the process of realising that CO2 is a consequence of global warming, not the cause?

    You can actually see the sequence in the graphs in Al Gore’s famous propaganda film actually, if you look at them carefully.

    Not that one would expect a politician to look carefully – might spoil a good scare.

  4. David Santillo criticises the idea on two scientfic grounds, not that it would be too easy or not require a change in society.

    Also the article says ‘millions of tonnnes’ – not sure if that is correct – would be needed.

  5. the best thing about this plan to create massive blooms all over the oceans is that there is absolutely no chance of any unintended consquences at all, unlike all those crappy lefty schemes which have loads of unintended consequences.

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