In the summer of 2012, scientist and entrepreneur Russ George sailed purposefully past the coast of Vancouver to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. There, he proceeded to dump 100 tons of iron sulfate into 10,000 square miles of ocean.
The Haida Indians had given him their blessing. George was the director of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and the Haida Indians were told that this iron would fertilize the plankton, a valuable feedstock for the native salmon. But George’s intentions went beyond fish farming: adding iron would allow swarms of plankton to blossom, which would draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Russ George claimed to have found a solution for amending the starving salmon population and mitigating the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in one fell swoop.
Most experts, however, were infuriated.
Since then, George has become an infamous case of the dangerous line between ingenuity and recklessness. Supporters argue that such drastic measures may be needed in the future unless we somehow reduce our greenhouse gas emission. But most scientists and policymakers argue that his hasty deed had no scientific merit, and could cause irreversible damage to the ocean environment.
How could an experiment with such good intentions have gone so wrong?
The idea of “ocean iron fertilization” as a means of climate control dates back to 1988, when oceanographer John Martin quipped, “Give me half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.” Since then, scientists have researched the consequences of adding iron to fertilize oceanic plankton, with promising results. Small-scale experiments demonstrated that simply adding iron to certain ocean waters, such as the Indian Ocean, would result in a bloom of plankton. A high concentration of iron led some plankton blooms to grow so large that they could be seen by satellite. Furthermore, these plankton blooms were accompanied by measurably lower levels of CO2 at the surface of the water.
According to Martin’s theory, plankton would consume the CO2 and incorporate the carbon into their bodies. Then, after a healthy life, the plankton would die, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and dragging that carbon with them. Ocean iron fertilization would therefore be a means of converting CO2 into biomass buried deep in the ocean.
Only one problem stands between Russ George’s solutions and a greener, happier world: it won’t work. Scientists have now all but disregarded ocean iron fertilization as a means of climate control. Sitting right beneath the planktonic bloom is a ravenous microbial community, just waiting for dead cells to fall on their dinner platters. Once these microbes consume the fallen plankton, they convert its carbon back to CO2, which bubbles right back up to the atmosphere. In fact, for the plankton to drag converted carbon to the bottom of the ocean, it first must make it past a whole kilometer of hungry microbes.
But even if the dying plankton cells managed to dodge all the scavengers in the water for that full kilometer, new research shows that ocean circulation would still bring that converted carbon right back to the surface in 38 years or less. This is much shorter than the hundreds of years CO2 would need to stay at the bottom of the ocean to make any noticeable difference in the climate.
To make matters worse, Russ George violated the international moratorium on geoengineering – the practice of manipulating Earth’s climate through large-scale perturbations of the environment. He also violated an international treaty on ocean pollution. Strict rules were in place to prevent this type of experiment, as large-scale ocean iron fertilization has the potential for many unexpected and terrifying consequences.
For example, as a sinking plankton bloom is consumed by the underlying microbes, the microbes’ demand for oxygen will be fierce, which may lead to oxygen-deficient areas of the ocean. This lack of oxygen could could be devastating to other sea life. Plankton can also directly secrete toxins; while not all plankton are harmful, large plankton blooms in the Gulf of Mexico have previously led to murky red tides of excreted toxins, which left hordes of dead fish washing on shore.
Most critical scientists know not to let these horrific possibilities get too far in their heads; the fact is we don’t have enough data to know whether any of these catastrophic side effects will occur. What most scientists are more concerned with is the irreversibility of such experimentation. With large-scale ocean iron fertilization, any unforeseen consequences may not emerge until it’s too late.
The real battle
Anecdotally, within a year of the iron dump, the salmon population did appear vibrant, although it’s possible this was simply because of salmon migration patterns and not the iron. Nonetheless, due to the outrage over the potential irreversible effects of iron fertilization, Russ George was fired as the head of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation in May 2013. Since then, Russ George’s name has trickled in and out of the media, bringing mumblings of a public still undecided on the merits of his deeds.
But the most troubling part of Russ George’s antics had nothing to do with ocean fertilization. The real scare was in a well-educated man initiating a high-risk solution without waiting for the proper lines of peer approval. For every scientific hypothesis, there will be scores of highly qualified researchers checking the counter-points. This is a normally a good thing, preventing falsities and promoting new discovery. But navigating this system takes extreme patience; researchers can be long in the grave before a peer-approved solution is agreed upon. What happens when an impatient scientist just says “to hell with it?”
In the end, Russ George’s solution did not result in any of the potentially devastating impacts, but also had zero affect on the climate. But the experimenter is still highly debated to this day. Is Russ George merely a man of action with the balls to leapfrog academic and policy gridlock and experiment on a scale that actually matters? Or is he a rogue scientist, a reckless cowboy experimenting on the environment with no care for tomorrow’s consequences? The debate may continue until another scientist-gone-rogue becomes our savior or our doom.