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Scientists Eat Crow on Geoengineering Test. Me, Too

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Harvard’s David Keith calls it the “goofy Goldfinger scenario”  – a rogue nation, or even an individual, would conduct an unsupervised geoengineering experiment — and he confidently predicted in a story I wrote last month that it would never happen.

It took about a month for him to be proven wrong. In mid-October, the Guardian reported that an American named Russ George had dumped 100 metric tons of iron sulfate into the waters off western Canada, triggering a bloom of algae. George claimed he did it with the knowledge of Canadian authorities, using equipment lent to him by NOAA (which said it didn’t know of his plans).

Some species of algae produce dangerous toxins for both sea life as well as humans. The term "red tide" is often associated with these algal blooms.
Credit: NOAA

Scientists (presumably including Keith) were outraged that such a thing could happen. It’s not that they have anything against algae, but rather that the project was a type of geoengineering —  a suite of anti-climate-change strategies that are highly controversial because they have the potential for triggering significant unintended consequences.

But triggering an algae bloom is also a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and along with spewing particles into the stratosphere to block some of the sun’s heat, it’s one of the main techniques geoengineers talk about using if efforts to limit those emissions ultimately fail.

Before they would be prepared to take such a major step, however, responsible scientists would take baby steps first: they would do small-scale experiments, under controlled conditions, with the supervision of some sort of regulatory or funding body that could take an independent look at the potential risks.

In 2009, climate scientists met to try and figure out a system of voluntary standards to guide geoengineering research, much as molecular biologists met in 1975 to assess the potential risks of biotechnology.

Nothing much came of the 2009 conference, but at least it raised the consciousness of those who might be interested in going ahead with real-world experiments. The lack of any governing authority for geoengineering is partly why scientists decided to cancel a proposed U.K. test known as the Stratospheric Particle Experiment for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, in the spring of 2012.

Andrew Parker of the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told the New York Times that George’s actions had apparently violated an international convention on ocean dumping and a U.N. convention on ocean fertilization for geoengineering purposes, along with a set of voluntary principles on geoengineering developed at Oxford. (George maintained that he wasn’t geoengineering at all: he was just trying to help the indigenous Haida people who live the region to re-invigorate their salmon fishery by increasing the fishes’ food supply.)

The scientists were outraged, in short, because someone went ahead and did an experiment they were too principled to do. But since there is no enforceable international agreement on geoengineering, outrage is pretty much all they’ve got.

For my part, I was outraged because I’d been so convinced by Keith and others this sort of rogue behavior was nothing to worry about. There’s not much chance of a binding treaty on geoengineering in any case, they said (and on that I agree). But the prospect of widespread finger-wagging by scientists would almost certainly be enough to stop any rogue geoengineer in his or her tracks.

Evidently not.

Related Content 
World’s Biggest Geoengineering Test “Violates” UN Rules 
Canadian Officials ‘Knew of Plans to Dump Iron into Pacific’ 
Geoengineering Faces Dilemma: Experiment or Not?

« Commentary


By M Tucker
on October 23rd, 2012

The two approaches I am most familiar with that are called geoengineering are triggering an algae bloom and spewing particles into the atmosphere.  I am opposed to the atmosphere approach because it does not address CO2. It is an approach that allows CO2 to still build up while some kind of solar reflecting particles are pumped into the atmosphere. But the other approach does reduce CO2. What of the massive tree planting movements in Mongolia, China and Africa? Are they ok? What is the big down side to triggering algae blooms? First, I am familiar with a test of the iron sulfate approach that took place in, I think, 2007 by Planktos. From what I could tell it was either inconclusive or deemed ineffective in locking down CO2 into the deep ocean. But, what is wrong with experimenting with algae blooms? What is the big downside? How about algae blooms from fertilizer runoff? Does that have the same downside as relatively small blooms from iron sulfate? So, the scientists are saying that if an individual dumps irons sulfate into the ocean he will be severely criticized but if the entire agricultural industry dumps nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer into the ocean that is ok? Wow, the power an influence of the scientific community and the UN to protect us from disruption to the natural iron sulfate cycle.Oh, wait there is no natural iron sulfate cycle. I get it, it is totally ok to disrupt the natural nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon cycles, no massive response from science, just lame reports and arm waving. Such brave determined scientists! However, if they can show how a bit of iron sulfate to lock down CO2 is so much worse than what is basically uncontested business as usual, I will change my tune.

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By Dane Wigington (bella Vista Ca 96008)
on October 23rd, 2012

Though the dumping of iron in the ocean is a horrific crime, the massive elephant in the room that is global aerosol geoengineering has yet to be admitted to. I hope that journalists will find the courage to address the decimation of our climate and atmosphere from the ongoing aerosol geoengineering programs.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on October 23rd, 2012

As opposed to the above strident comment, I instead agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this piece. Non-scientists don’t always appreciate what scientific discipline means. In fact in some cases some apparently consider such discipline an annoying and counterproductive obstacle to doing something that otherwise looks so good, so tempting and so reasonable on the surface (no pun intended).

In the case of attempted geoengineering by iron seeding the oceans, it is obvious that the downside risks from unintended consequences could be really high. Plankton are the basis of the entire food chain in the oceans. The oceans, or more specifically certain ocean areas, are specifically iron deficient. So other, larger things get their iron from eating the plankton. Then there’s cyanobacteria and other bacteria and viruses that will likely be impacted. It’s a web ”“ and an incompletely understood one. Just messing with it for kicks or profit is unconscionable. We don’t even know how many different species live in the oceans. Dumping iron in the oceans is a lot different from planting trees. Hopefully, it too will be proven to be a safe and viable potential part of an overall climate change mitigation strategy.  But caution and strict scientific discipline under the supervision of experts is really needed here so as to avoid potentially serious unintended consequences of otherwise rushing ahead.

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By J Reynolds (Netherlands)
on October 26th, 2012

Michael, Russ George is no “Greenfinger” because solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal geoengineering methods are so different that they should be treated differently. Yes, George’s actions are not good science and are contrary to international environmental law. But no one person or nation could be a lone acting geoengineer via ocean fertilization because (1) the entire capacity of ocean fertilization is less than 10% of annual global emissions, and (2) it remains too expensive, with costs increasing at the margin. solar radiation management, on the other hand, does have technical and economic feasibility for a lone actor. Whether this could ever happen politically is another matter.

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By Jim (56013)
on October 26th, 2012

Dumping iron in the ocean can’t be as bad as all of the garbage, nuclear waste, oil, and other nonsense getting dumped into the ocean all of the time. Of course we’ll never really know will we?

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By David Lewis (Seattle)
on October 26th, 2012

It is ridiculous to talk about 100 tons of material dumped into the ocean for whatever purpose and conclude it is the “goofy Goldfinger scenario” types like David Keith said would never happen.  Goldfinger’s plot supposedly threatened the global financial system.  This 100 tons of fertilizer will not have a measurable effect on the planetary system. 

Those who say it is unlikely or impossible for an individual or small nation to simply geoengineer the planet for their own purposes don’t mean it will be impossible for someone to do something insignificant. 

They point to the fact that the great powers do not have to stand by and allow someone or some small nation to do something large enough for the rest of civilization to notice.  Imagine if you were to claim that the US government’s assurance to its citizens that the territory of the United States will be defended against invasion means nothing now that some story hits the news about a few immigrants crossing the border.  You wouldn’t claim something like that because you want to be taken seriously. 

Apparently, because of the paucity of discussion about geoengineering that has taken place so far and because of the general denial that climate change is even a problem,  you can’t see how ludicrous your reasoning is.

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By Dr. Strangegas (Washington)
on October 26th, 2012

So, if its a terrible thing for an individual or small group to do something that ostensibly is in violation of an international treaty their home country is a party to, what about the signature of your country that is on the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change?  Even the US signed and ratified that convention. 

Since that convention calls for all signatories to “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system…. ... within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally toclimate change”, and many authorities, even such as Bob Watson, now say limiting warming to 2 degrees is out the window, and some, such as Kevin Anderson say we are now committed to a level of warming “incompatible with an organized global community”, obviously, no one wanting to live up the letter of international legal instruments such as you can emit another molecule of greenhouse gases.

An average North American emits some 17 - 20 TONNES of CO2 EACH per year, that would be you and 5 of your compatriots emissions adding up to more than the 100 tonnes of material the Haida dumped into the ocean, and even though the Haida were dumping fertilizer and you are dumping CO2, the fact that the orders of magnitude of the tonnage is similar should say something to you about how significant it is.  I’ll bet you think it is impossible for you and 5 friends to do something that could be called geoengineering.  Isn’t it the truth then to say the same about the Haida?

There is very strong scientific agreement about what your emissions do, whereas there is less such agreement about fertilizing the ocean.  It may prove to be beneficial from a climate point of view, or even from an ocean acidification point of view to dump fertilizer on oceans in certain quantities in certain places, whereas no one really believes adding more GHG to the atmosphere can do anything but aggravate the situation.

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By Bhaskar (Hyderabad, India)
on October 28th, 2012

The LP / LC protocol on Ocean Fertilization permits experiments. One time use of 100 tons of Iron Sulfate is certainly an experiment and not a regular or recurring fertilization act.

Therefore it is certainly permitted under the LC and LP, especially since no guidelines have been framed under the protocol and no regulatory authority has been set up.

Once guidelines are framed and a regulatory authority is set up, anyone who wishes to undertake a similar experiment can follow the rules framed.

Accusing people of breaking rules that do not exist is rather silly.

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