Russ George Dumping Iron Ore into the Ocean

“The $2-million project, initiated by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., is intended to raise nutrient levels offshore in hopes of reviving salmon populations, according to corporation president John Disney. Disney said earlier reports that iron sulphate was used in the dump were incorrect, and that a finely ground dirt-like substance with trace amounts of iron was actually used. “The results were just spectacular, like we created life where there wasn’t life,” Disney said.”

Geoengineering with bloom : high concentrations of chlorophyll in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska
Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. {Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA}

World’s biggest geoengineering experiment ‘violates’ UN rules
by Martin Lukacs / 15 October 2012

A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian investigation can reveal. Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a “blatant violation” of two international moratoria and the news is likely to spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit taking place in India this week. Satellite images appear to confirm the claim by Californian Russ George that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geoengineering technique known as ocean fertilisation that he hopes will net lucrative carbon credits.

George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments Scientists are debating whether iron fertilisation can lock carbon into the deep ocean over the long term, and have raised concerns that it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and lifeless waters, and worsen ocean acidification and global warming. “It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later,” said John Cullen , an oceanographer at Dalhousie University. “Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.”

“…my guest tonight is a horrible scientist….”

George says his team of unidentified scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from US agencies like Nasa and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. He told the Guardian that it is the “most substantial ocean restoration project in history,” and has collected a “greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before. We’ve gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilisation],” George said. “And the news is good news, all around, for the planet.”

The dump took place from a fishing boat in an eddy 200 nautical miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, one of the world’s most celebrated, diverse ecosystems, where George convinced the local council of an indigenous village to establish the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation to channel more than $1m of its own funds into the project. The president of the Haida nation, Guujaaw, said the village was told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is crucial to their livelihood and culture. “The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention,” Guujaaw said.

International legal experts say George’s project has contravened the UN’s convention on biological diversity (CBD) and London convention on the dumping of wastes at sea, which both prohibit for-profit ocean fertilisation activities. “It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions,” said Kristina M Gjerde, a senior high seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Even the placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research.”

George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a “mythology” and do not apply to his project. The parties to the UN CBD are currently meeting in Hyderabad, India, where the governments of Bolivia, the Philippines and African nations as well as indigenous peoples organizations are calling for the current moratorium to be upgraded to a comprehensive test ban of geoengineering that includes enforcement mechanisms. “If rogue geoengineer Russ George really has misled this indigenous community, and dumped iron into their waters, we hope to see swift legal response to his behavior and strong action taken to the heights of the Canadian and US governments,” said Silvia Ribeiro of the international technology watchdog ETC Group, which first discovered the existence of the scheme. “It is now more urgent than ever that governments unequivocally ban such open-air geoengineering experiments. They are a dangerous distraction providing governments and industry with an excuse to avoid reducing fossil fuel emissions.”

US businessman defends controversial geoengineering experiment
by Martin Lukacs  /  19 October 2012

The American businessman who dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean has become a lone defender of his project, after a storm of criticism from indigenous peoples, the Canadian government and a UN biodiversity meeting in India. Russ George, who told the Globe and Mail that he is the world’s leading “champion” of geoengineering, says he has been under a “dark cloud of vilification” since the Guardian broke news of an ocean fertilisation scheme, funded by an indigenous village on the Haida Gwaii islands, that aimed to make money in offset markets by sequestering carbon through artificial plankton blooms. “I’m not a rich, scheming businessman, right,” he said. “That’s not who I am … This is my heart’s work, not my hip pocket work, right?”

A US agency that loaned George’s company 20 expensive ocean buoyssaid they had been “misled,” and the Canadian National Research Council that provided funding said they “were not made aware” of plans for ocean fertilisation. The Council of the Haida Nation, which represents all Haida, issued a statement condemning George. “The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment,” it read. “Our people along with the rest of humanity depend on the oceans and cannot leave the fate of the oceans to the whim of the few.”

The Canadian government announced on Thursday that they did not “approve this non-scientific event” and enforcement officials were continuing an investigation they launched on 30 August. “This government takes very seriously our commitment to protect the environment and anyone who contravenes environmental law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Canada’s environment minister, Peter Kent, said in parliament, after a Guardian article revealed that the environment department had known that George was planning an iron dump but had not done anything to prevent it.

According to the department, officials met in May with the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, of which George was “chief scientist,” and gave them “fact sheets” explaining that commercial ocean fertilisation is prohibited under Canadian law and United Nations rules. “It is critical that full enforcement action is taken by the Canadian authorities. Canada will be aware that this very serious matter will be addressed at a meeting in London at the end of this month,” said Duncan Currie, an international lawyer specialising in sea law who is attending the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meetings in Hyderabad, India, which closes today.

In a binding decision due to be agreed today, representatives from 192 states underlined the existing international moratoria on geoengineering and ocean fertilisation and stressed the need for precaution, noting that no single geoengineering technique “meets basic criteria for effectiveness, safety and affordability”, and “may prove difficult to deploy or govern”. The decision of the CBD also requires that countries begin reporting on how they are implementing the moratoria, a first step towards global monitoring and enforcement against geoengineering.

Geoengineering with iron might work after all
by Michael Marshall / 18 July 2012

If you want to help stop climate change, try tipping some iron into the sea. For years, this geoengineering idea has been considered a busted flush, but new results suggest it really can work. Tiny floating algae called phytoplankton pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When they die, the plankton sink to the seabed, taking the carbon with them. Over thousands of years, this strips CO2 from the air, lowering temperatures. But many ocean regions are short of iron, which plankton need to grow, so the process does not occur. Adding iron should stimulate plankton growth in these areas. That was the theory, at least. In practice, it is charitable to say the results have been mixed. For many people, the idea died in 2009, when a field trial called Lohafex failed in the South Atlantic. The iron triggered a bloom, but it was eaten by crustaceans before it could sink.

However, another trial, called Eifex, was carried out in the Southern Ocean in 2004. The results have finally been published – and they are promising. The Eifex ship found an ideal testing ground: a slowly rotating eddy 60 kilometres across and 4 kilometres deep, which was more or less isolated from the surrounding waters. Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, and colleagues dumped iron sulphate into the eddy’s core and studied the resulting bloom. The water was rich in silicic acid, so the bloom was dominated by phytoplankton called diatoms. These algae build silica cell walls, which makes them harder to eat and more likely to sink than plankton with calcium carbonate shells. “They are not the pastures of the ocean, they are the thistles,” Smetacek says. The diatom bloom grew for three weeks, then died and sank. At least half of it sank far below 1 kilometre, and probably reached the sea floor (NatureDOI: 10.1038/nature11229).

No other study has tracked a sinking bloom. “This confirms what we expected to happen,” says Richard Lampitt of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who was not involved in the study. Lampitt says Lohafex failed because the trial site was low in silicon, so the bloom contained few diatoms. Eifex’s success is far from a green light for iron fertilisation, though. At most, a global programme could mop up about 1 gigatonne of carbon per year, about a tenth of our current emissions, according to a modelling study by Ken Caldeira at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California (Climatic Change, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-010-9799-4). “It’s too little to be the solution,” agrees Smetacek, “but it’s too much to ignore.”

Fertilised patches create algal food sources but burn through ocean nutrients. This could be a boon to some threads of the food web, but it could suppress diatom formation elsewhere to the detriment of other marine species. All those contacted by New Scientist agreed that any tests should be run as a public good, not for profit. Some firms had planned to use iron fertilisation to accrue carbon credits which they could sell on, but in 2008 the London Convention and Protocol – an international treaty – ruled that the practice should not be allowed.

Iron fertilisation and the whales
Iron fertilisation is mainly seen as a way to engineer the climate (main story), but it could also help boost whale populations by restoring their natural ecosystem, says Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. Many Southern-Ocean whales feed on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). This krill is one of the few species that eat algae called diatoms in large quantities, but krill numbers have been plummeting for decades. Increasingly, ecologists suspect that declining krill numbers are linked to humanity’s over-hunting of whales. Whale faeces are rich in the iron that helps fuel diatom growth. This in turn benefits the krill – and ultimately the whales. “Whales might be effectively fertilising their own foods, and a reduction in whale populations would impact on that food resource,” says David Raubenheimer of Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. There is no guarantee that the boosted diatoms would end up being eaten by krill, though, or that the resulting increased krill would be eaten by whales. “There are many other competitors in the ecosystem,” notes Ian Boyd at the University of St Andrews in the UK.

{photo: Kevin Dooley/Creative Commons}

Geoengineering Moratorium at UN Ministerial in Japan  /  29 October 2010

In a landmark consensus decision, the 193-member UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will close its tenth biennial meeting with a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments.   “Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus,” stated Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group.

The agreement, reached during the ministerial portion of the two-week meeting which included 110 environment ministers, asks governments to ensure  that no geoengineering activities take place until risks to the environmental and biodiversity and associated social, cultural and economic impacts risks have been appropriately considered as well as the socio-economic impacts. The CBD secretariat was also instructed to report back on various geoengineering proposals and potential intergovernmental regulatory measures.

The unusually strong consensus decision builds on the 2008 moratorium on ocean fertilization.  That agreement, negotiated at COP 9 in Bonn, put the brakes on a litany of failed “experiments” – both public and private – to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans’ depths by spreading nutrients on the sea surface.  Since then, attention has turned to a range of futuristic proposals to block a percentage of solar radiation via large-scale interventions in the atmosphere, stratosphere and outer space that would alter global temperatures and precipitation patterns.

“This decision clearly places the governance of geoengineering in the United Nations where it belongs,” said ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney.  “This decision is a victory for common sense, and for precaution.  It will not inhibit legitimate scientific research.  Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving ‘voluntary guidelines’ on climate hacking.  What little credibility such efforts may have had in some policy circles in the global North has been shattered by this decision. The UK Royal Society and its partners should cancel their Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative and respect that the world’s governments have collectively decided that future deliberations on geoengineering should take place in the UN, where all countries have a seat at the table and where civil society can watch and influence what they are doing.

Delegates in Nagoya have now clearly understood the potential threat that deployment – or even field testing – of geoengineering technologies poses to the protection of biodiversity. The decision was hammered out in long and difficult late night sessions of a “Friends of the chair” group, attended by ETC Group, and adopted by the Working Group 1 Plenary on 27 October 2010.  The Chair of the climate and biodiversity negotiations called the final text “a highly delicate compromise.”

“The decision is not perfect,” said Neth Dano of ETC Group Philippines. “Some delegations are understandably concerned that the interim definition of geoengineering is too narrow because it does not include Carbon Capture and Storage technologies.  Before the next CBD meeting, there will be ample opportunity to consider these questions in more detail. But climate techno-fixes are now firmly on the UN agenda and will lead to important debates as the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit approaches.  A change of course is essential, and geoengineering is clearly not the way forward.”

A harmful algal bloom in the waters of La Jolla, San Diego County, California. {Photo credit: Kai Schumann, NOAA}

by Mat McDermott  /  November 1, 2010

At the Convention on Biodiversity a resolution was adopted which places a moratorium on geoengineering unless it can be proven that the method in question can be shown to not have an adverse effect on biodiversity. Opponents of geoengineering cheered, TreeHugger’s John Laumer loudly jeered, and Fred Pearce, writing in New Scientist shrugs his shoulders. Who’s right? And is the ban really even a ban at all?

Research Still Permitted, Deployment Requires Precaution
Let’s look at the crucial part of the text:

Climate-related geo-engineering activities [should not] take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts.

Furthermore, “small-scale scientific research studies” are specifically exempted from the ban. So, no one is saying you can’t do basic research on any geoengineering method, no matter how potentially risky or benign, effective or ineffective it might be, but if you want to take that research beyond that small-scale you have to be able to prove you’re not going to radically screw up the environment that previous human activity is already screwing up. Perhaps that’s too glib a phrasing of the precautionary principle, but it frankly doesn’t seem an unreasonable standard to set for activities design to affect the global climate.

Impact of Ban, What Methods Get Approval, Unclear
In practice the impact of all this isn’t exactly clear–though it’s not, as my colleague alleges, an anti-science eco-moralist crusade straight out the 1600s, playing into the hands of libertarian small government proponents. As Pearce points out the definition of geoengineering here includes pretty much everything under the sun, anything that reduces solar heating or increases carbon capture from the atmosphere. Under that banner are a wide range of methods, with varying degrees of efficacy and risk. He’s also right in that almost any activity that humans do can affect biodiversity, including (prominently) not taking action to stop climate change. Complicating matters, as Mongabay points out, the moratorium doesn’t apply in the United States, as it is not a member of the Convention on Biodiversity.

International Oversight & Cooperation Essential
When it comes down to it though (vague wording aside), is something that is both critically important and agreed upon by vocal anti-geoengineering activists and the more sober voices of the Royal Society alike: There needs to be international oversight of geoengineering schemes.

It’s Getting Hot In Here quotes ETC Group executive director Pat Mooney:

This decision clearly places the governance of geoengineering in the United Nations where it belongs…Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving ‘voluntary guidelines’ on climate hacking.

Perhaps the most important issue in all this is, as the Royal Society pointed out in their assessment of geoengineering, the first and foremost thing we have to do to stop climate change is radically limit greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity–stopping burning fossil fuels and stopping deforestation are at the top of list for how to do that.

Geoengineering or climate engineering solution to climate change: marine cloud whitening
Engineer Stephen Salter’s design for an unmanned ship designed to generate clouds and reflect sunlight away from the earth.

by Michael Marshall / 14 September 2011

Field trials for experiments to engineer the climate have begun. Next month a team of UK researchers will hoist one end of a 1-kilometre-long hose aloft using a balloon, then attempt to pump water up it and spray it into the atmosphere. The water will not affect the climate. Rather, the experiment is a proof of principle to show that we can pump large quantities of material to great heights. If it succeeds, a larger-scale version could one day pump sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, creating a sunshade that will offset the greenhouse effect. The trial, led by Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol, UK, is part of a £2 million project called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE). Funded by two UK research councils, it also aims to find out the ideal particles to use in an atmospheric sunshade and will attempt to model their effects in greater detail than ever before. The test is not alone: a string of other technologies that could be used to “geoengineer” our environment are being field-tested.

In his blog, The Reluctant Geoengineer, Watson argues that we need to investigate the effects of sulphate aerosols as a last-resort remedy should the climate start to change rapidly. Researchers contacted by New Scientistagreed with Watson that such research should continue, if only to find out whether the techniques are feasible. “I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll end up doing it, because it’ll get too warm and people will demand the planet be cooled off,” says Wallace Broecker of Columbia University in New York. But there was less enthusiasm for SPICE’s approach to the problem. There are “large gaps” in our understanding of geoengineering, says Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern in Switzerland. Stocker helped to organise an expert meeting on geoengineering in June for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It identified key unanswered questions that should be a focus for research. However, it is not clear that field trials like Watson’s will provide the answers.

One area of doubt over injecting aerosols into the stratosphere is whether it will change the behaviour of high-altitude clouds. That could in turn affect the climate in ways beyond what was intended – and for now, we don’t know how, or how much. Aerosols could also deplete the ozone layer, contribute to air pollution and may alter visibility in the same way as large volcanic eruptions can. The SPICE test won’t answer any of these questions, says David Keith of Harvard University. “I think it’s a little reckless.” The most interesting result will be how the public reacts, he says.

What’s more, Keith adds, in the long run delivering sulphates to the stratosphere with a hose would be a bad idea. Spraying aerosols locally allows the particles to clump together, making them less effective at reflecting sunlight and more likely to be swept down by rain (Environmental Research Letters, DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/045108). Keith’s own studies suggest that if we were ever forced to try to screen out some of the sun’s rays globally, it would be more effective to spray sulphuric acid from aircraft (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043975). It would also be cheaper, costing a few billion dollars a year according to a study by Aurora Flight Sciences, an aeronautical firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Such figures are tiny compared to the trillions that the consequences of climate change could cost the global economy if emissions continue to rise at current rates. The point, says Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, is that experiments like Watson’s, which test relatively simple delivery systems, address the issue of cost. But, since the Aurora study has shown that cost is not a critical factor – a sunshade will be relatively inexpensive – the critical questions relate to potential risks. More importantly, since a stratospheric sunshade is intended to have a global impact, all countries must agree to such a project and to its precise extent, which is unlikely to happen.

One possibility that may help countries agree is that the sunshade need not be applied evenly across the globe. Caldeira has created, in a climate model, a sunshade with much larger quantities of aerosols above the poles than above the tropics. This produced a temperature distribution much closer to the pre-industrial climate than could be achieved with a uniform sunshade (Environmental Research Letters, DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/5/3/034009). Caldeira and others are now toying with the idea of regional geoengineering, or “geoadaptation”. Some techniques, such as making clouds over the seas more reflective, should have localised effects, so countries could in theory tinker only with their own climate. But here too uncertainties need to be resolved. Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York points out that changes in one area will have a knock-on effect on the other side of the planet. “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas,” he says. We could perhaps predict these long-range effects, but we cannot eliminate them. Schmidt says that what we need is not field tests, but better modelling studies. Most simulations of geoengineering are “naive”, he says, and cannot model all the possible side effects. “People are not doing the right kinds of experiments to assess these effects.”

Coping with emissions
The pipe-to-the-sky experiment is not the only geoengineering method that is being tested. In 2009, a team of Russian scientists sprayed a small amount of sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere and found that they blocked between 1 and 10 per cent of incoming solar radiation (Russian Meteorology and Hydrology, DOI: 10.3103/S106837390905001X). Iceland is testing a less contentious technique to deal with our carbon emissions: turning them into rock. The CarbFix project aims to capture carbon dioxide from a local geothermal power plant, dissolve it in water and inject it into basalt rock, where it will react with magnesium, calcium and iron to form carbonates. If it works, the CO2 should stay put even in an earthquake. It is the safest way of storing CO2, according to project leader Sigurður Reynir Gíslasonof the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. The team plans to start the gas injections later this month.

Adding iron to the ocean can trigger plankton blooms that suck up CO2, but a 2009 field test gave mixed results. That’s because the test site was unsuitable, says Richard Lampitt of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK. He and colleagues hope to repeat the trial. Elsewhere, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, has permission to add sodium hydroxide – an alkali – to a small patch of ocean to see if it can reverse the effects of ocean acidification. Finally, California-based engineer Armand Neukermans is building a nozzle that will spray seawater into clouds, making them whiter and better able to reflect sunlight into space.

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