How to deal with climate change

‘Blood rain’ will fall on Britain this weekend staining cars and pavements a rusty brown as red dust blows in from the Sahara desert.

Parts of the UK are facing soaring levels of air pollution as African dust mingles with city pollution, prompting health officials to issue warnings to vulnerable people.

Much of the South East and eastern England will see high levels of pollution, although the problem is expected to be short-lived, with Atlantic winds dispersing the murky air by Saturday, the Environment Department (Defra) said.

“Blood rain” is the term used when rain mixes with sand from deserts. Storms in the Sahara desert whip up sand into a fine dust which is carried for more than 2,000 miles to Britain.

When the rain falls it looks a reddish colour and when it dries it leaves a thin layer of dust capable of coating houses, cars and garden furniture.

Although it is more common in Spain and the South of France, it has been known to travel longer distances and fall in areas like Scandinavia. In some parts of India the colour has been vibrant enough to stain clothing.

The red in this dust is iron. And this is therefore one of the ways in which we should deal with climate change.

Because, as I’ve repeatedly said elsewhere, there are areas of the oceans that are iron deficient. Add iron to them you get algal blooms, some of which die and sink to the bottom becoming rock. Meaning that the carbon they take with them become properly sequestered. The best available estimate is that we could sink 1 billion tonnes of emissions a year this way. No, not a total solution by any means but a useful addition: that is two Britain’s worth of emissions after all.

Further more this would be exotically cheap. Iron sulphide, the stuff you want, is not just free, people will pay you to take it away.

However, there’s no ongoing experimentation on this. The last serious experiment was a decade ago (there was a non-serious, private sector one, more recently). It’s almost as if, well, horrible to say this, but it’s almost as if some people don’t want there to be a technological solution……

Despite the fact that this red dust from the Sahara we know, absolutely, does exactly the same thing. Think of it like organic farming. No one does insist that you can only spread the animal shit on the fields by having the animals shit in the fields. Everyone agrees that you can shovel up their shit from their pens and spread that on the fields. So why can’t we shovel up iron dust and spread it, when the wind already does this to a lesser scale?

At least, we should be testing it properly, no?

(There is a further wonder here as well. This same dust has just been found to be what provides the potassium and phosphorous for the Amazon rainforest. But if you were to suggest spreading potassium and phosphorous in the Amazon rainforest you would be raping Gaia. Because, you know artificial fertiliser is the very devil. Despite the stuff coming from the same damn deserts (no, really, largest mines are in the Sahara) as the dust itself.)

16 thoughts on “How to deal with climate change”

  1. This same dust has just been found to be what provides the potassium and phosphorous for the Amazon rainforest. I can recall my geography teacher 30 years ago telling us that the Amazon and American midwest owe a lot of their fertility to Saharan loess.

  2. 1 billion tonnes is a scary number. What’s that as a percentage of the total Global Carbon Budget?

  3. Is 22,000 tons of phosphorus enough for 5 and half million square kilometres?

    That the figures estimated to cross the Atlantic are similar to the figures estimated for being washed out of the rainforest due to rain makes me wonder if it’s just the trans-Atlantic dust being washed out to sea and the rainforest gets its fertiliser from the ground and wildlife.

  4. Philip Scott Thomas

    Genuine question – is there any downside to algal blooms? Any effect on marine populations?

  5. To seriously concentrated ones, yes. mThe sort caused by fertiliser runoff into he Gulf of Mexico kill off all the fish. Iron fertilisation wouldn’t produce such concentrations so no problem. And the point is to do it in those areas where there aren’t any fish now anyway.

  6. Re oceanic blooms, I assume it’s a question of scale, both time and area, but absent that is there any reason the same results can’t be achieved in some sort of artificial way?

  7. dearie

    I recommend “Where do camels belong?” by Ken Thomson. Invasive species settle down over the course of a century (roughly our panic attack about CO2) to become just part of nature. Nature, you see, doesn’t make any distinction between natural and artificial. No use in getting upset about Japanese knotweed.

    As fo seeding the oceans, I’m all for it. Plenty of fish once the links in the food chain are established.

  8. Iron sulphide, the stuff you want…
    You mean iron sulphate. Iron sulphide is largely insoluble in water (but reacts with acids to produce hydrogen sulphide).

    The last serious experiment was a decade ago…
    The last serious experiment was the LOHAFEX experiment in 2009, which gave somewhat disappointing results.

    At least, we should be testing it properly, no?
    Yes, I think we should.

  9. Sulphate, yes, my boo boo. And Lohafex was the last experiment but…..the last analysis was of EIFEX, an earlier experiment. The major difference in results comeing from he lack, or not, of silicic acid in the experiment area. If silicic acid is absent, in short supply, then not much carbon sequestrated. If it’s not a binding constraint, then much is. And silicic acid is something that can be created by adding the right stuff to the water.

    Important point to note. Both experiments were largely led by a Dr. Smetacek. Who I have corresponded with. After the publication of both sets of results. And my statements that it will work, cheaply, and will only work up to 1 Gtonne come from him. After his consideration of both sets of results.

    It is, at best, a partial solution, but a cheap partial solution. That’s the current state of scientific knowledge. And, as above, yes I really have checked this. Direct with the source. The reason it doesn’t happen? The politics of doing anything in the open ocean. Which is a bit odd when we’re staring down, as we’re told we are, the barrels of a problem that will boil us all, eh?

  10. Saharan winds presumably sorts by particle size, while Dr Smetacek selected for quality. What is the balance of advantage between bigger and better.

    Second, do you have to continuously drizzle your powders into the ocean or is it a one-off operation? If the former, could end up expensive, but the precautionary principle cannot apply as the ocean will revert to status quo ante when you stop. If the latter, I’m surprised some fishermen haven’t got together clandestinely to do it already.

    Proposals to extend territorial waters may solve the political logjam. Or maybe not.

  11. Continuous, so yes, reversion. Selection isn’t so much for particle size (although obviously, the wind does that) as for chemistry. Only some of he dust is soluble iron. All of what is pitched over the side is. Volumes of what you need are small with the right chemistry. We’re talking of perhaps thousands of tonnes to do the whole thing for a year. Material which is, disregarding transport costs, free.

    You could think up interestingly complex ways of doing this but in reality having a lascar shovelling it over the gunwhale would work.

  12. Chemistry aside, I was taken by the Telegraph’s characterisation of the southern air mass as “pollution”. Really?

    I guess all those Saharan Africans are doing horrible things to the atmosphere, enough to pollute Europe. Weather as pollution. That fits the “taxing air” policy.

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