Dumping iron sulphate into the ocean, or, how to 'geo-engineer' the climate

Climate change due to human interference with fragile ecosystems? No problem - we can just dump 20 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean

The time has come to talk about geo-engineering – and I mean really talk about it. If you’ve never heard the term then get used to it because ‘geo-engineering’ will be turning up more in editorials, policy pronouncements and heated arguments. It describes any large-scale techno-fix that deliberately tinkers with the climate, weather or ecosystems.

Polluting the upper atmosphere with nanoparticles that cool the planet? That’s geo-engineering. Turning plantations into charcoal to bury our problems in the soil? That’s geo-engineering. Changing the chemistry of the seas to soak up more greenhouse gas? Also geo-engineering.

As I write, an Indo-German experiment, dubbed Lohafex, is dumping 20 tons of iron sulphate over an area of the southern ocean about the size of the Maldives. The iron will prompt the growth of tiny plankton, leaving a long green scar on the ocean visible from space. Proponents say this plankton bloom will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it away forever. Dr Victor Smetacek, co-chief of the expedition, imagines deploying five to 10 ocean-fertilisation ships all year round, fantasising that this could remove a gigatonne of CO2 from the atmosphere. Whimsically, he muses that the ships might accommodate eco-tourists who would volunteer to shovel iron sulphate overboard!

In March, geo-engineers associated with the Australian based Ocean Nourishment Corporation want to dump industrial urea into the Tasman Sea. US-based Climos Inc intends to carry out another large dump in early 2010.

Is all this legal? Actually no. In the past two years, civil society groups and some sober governments have put the brakes on the ocean-fertiliser crowd. Last May, 191 states at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed a de facto moratorium on ocean fertilisation. The Lohafex expedition ignored both the CBD agreement and the strong advice of the German environment minister, who requested a halt.

The science suggests not only that ocean fertilisation is ineffective at mitigating climate change, but also that artificially messing with marine ecosystems this way might lead to reduced oxygen in the water, the growth of toxic algae species and even more damaging greenhouse gases. If you want to see how fertilising our already stressed oceans can go badly wrong, check out the vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen fertiliser runoff has already done what the geo-engineers are hoping to mimic.

But the urgent public debate on geo-engineering has to be broader than the specific risks of this one technique. We need to decide if geoengineering of any kind is a road worth travelling. Its advocates are already calling for public funds and society’s blessing to conduct realworld tests of equally risky proposals. They will use an upcoming Royal Society report to make their case for increased experimentation.

Like GM field trials or nuclear testing, such experiments will massively interfere with our environment. In each case, a small group of scientists and their backers will be using the climate crisis to broker their own legitimacy to alter the planet. We shall hear that extreme times require extreme measures. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, has already described geoengineering in medical terms as planetary medicine – ‘an emergency treatment for the pathology of global warming’.

When I hear such arguments I think of my grandmother. Shortly before she died of cancer, she underwent debilitating chemotherapy. ‘Those doctors can kill you with their drugs,’ she warned me angrily – and indeed they did. She chose an extreme intervention at an extreme time in her life and it didn’t work – but at least it was freely chosen.

What scares me is that the geo-engineers want to put the whole planet into experimental chemotherapy: nanoparticles injected into the sky, charcoal mixed into soil and iron dumped in the ocean. Right now they are preparing to wheel the planet-as-patient into the emergency ward and are not very interested in broader societal permission. We live on that planet. It is time to speak up – before irreversible procedures are set in motion.

Jim Thomas is a research programme manager and writer with ETC group (www.etcgroup.org)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009

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