Can we remove a trillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere?

| 3rd May 2018
Russ George Ocean pasture restoration
Nick Breeze
The oceans cover 72 percent of the planet - but are all but ignored in discussions about reducing levels of atmospheric carbon to preindustrial levels. In this interview with NICK BREEZE, ocean ecologist Russ George explains how ocean restoration will lower greenhouse gases and bring back fish stocks to levels not seen for generations

We know that since 1950 we have lost the equivalent biomass of 12 entire Amazons from our oceans.

'Remove', 'sequester', 'lock-up'. Call it how you like, but to stabilise our climate and surpass the Paris Agreement, we really need to be thinking about storing hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon. I don’t think anybody on Earth can visualise what numbers like these really look like. Yet, our future depends on us lowering the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to safe levels before, so-called self-amplifying feedbacks take over - if they haven’t already.

There is a clue emerging as to how we might accomplish such a feat - in the image of the Blue Marble NASA image of Earth. Namely that over 70 percent of the planet is ocean and the fate of life on Earth is intrinsically tied to that of the oceans.

Currently - and it is no secret - the oceans are in a terminal decline, acidifying, heating, losing their biomass and, the worse bit, flipping from carbon sink to carbon source. Fish stocks are also depleted, as ocean ecosystems fall under the sad blanket of degradation. But what if, by a process of biomimicry, we could reverse these processes and restore the life in the oceans?

Nick Breeze (NB): In the context of climate change and carbon sinks, can we talk a little bit about the role the oceans play in photosynthesis?

Russ George (RG): This blue planet is 28 percent land, of which half is rock and ice. So 14 percent of this planet has soil that might sustain green plants, but 72 percent of this planet is the ocean, all of which can sustain green photosynthesis.

So the green photosynthetic productivity in the ocean is down by 40-50 percent. That is the conservative data backed numbers for the collapse of phytoplankton in the worlds ocean. We are terrestrial beings so we think about forests. So everybody on the planet knows about the plight of the Amazon rainforest, and it is a global cause celeb. Tens of millions of dollars are being focussed on trying to save the remaining rainforests because 20 percent of the rainforest has been cut down. 

But in every five year period of time since 1950, there has been a loss of green plant life equal to an entire Amazon in the worlds oceans. So here we are. A dozen Amazons have gone missing from the world. 

NB: That is absolutely enormous in terms of scale. What state are they in, I mean how much of this impact can they absorb?

RG: Well, we know that since 1950 if we have lost 12 entire Amazon’s worth of biomass in the oceans, if we merely restore it to that state, we’ll capture that much sustainable living biomass in the oceans. 

That is more forestry potential than exists than in all the lands on the planet. So we can grow plants in the ocean that will harvest many times the amount of CO2 than if we were to reforest all available land on the planet.

NB: The oceans have recently been described as a vast desert. Are you talking about turning them into a rich biodiverse environment?

RG: I describe the oceans as being a vast oceanscape, like a landscape. Scattered around on that oceanscape are pastures that come and go, like pastures on land. So the ocean pastures of the world come into being when the necessary nutrients arrive. The most critical nutrient for photosynthesis is iron. It is the rarest substance in the ocean. 

The background level of iron in the open ocean, far from land, is only 3 parts per trillion. So when iron arrives, say in a dust fall from the Gobi Desert, or from the Sahara, the concentration of iron in the surface water rises from 3 parts per trillion to, say, 100 parts per trillion, or 1 part per billion. 

When it does that, the ocean turns from blue to green immediately because iron empowers photosynthesis. So the potential is there to restore the ocean pastures of the planet. The ocean is not one single pasture; it is a collection of pastures.

NB: Can we talk about your method for doing this and its connection to the Earth’s method for doing the same thing?

RG: John Martin worked out, back in the 1970’s and 80’s that when dust falls in the ocean, the ocean blooms. He looked at the ice ages and the sedimentary records in the ocean. He concluded that if we look at what the condition was just before the ice age, we see in the sedimentary record, a sudden arrival of a lot of dust. The planet got dry and dusty, the dust blew in the wind and landed in the ocean, and we see in the sedimentary record, blooms of plankton.

As soon as the plankton bloomed, we observe that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere declines. It repurposes the CO2 into ocean life which pulled the greenhouse gas blanket off the Earth. The Earth got cold and went into an ice age.

Martin said “How much dust would be required?” He did the science and said, “a mere ship load of iron dust would be more than sufficient to restore the ocean to its historic most abundant productive state of life.” 

That would be sufficient to pull all of humanities anthropogenic CO2 out of the atmosphere and repurpose it into new ocean life, and the ocean has the capacity to do that.

NB: We are talking about between 600 billion and 1 trillion tonnes of CO2?

RG: Yeah, yesterday’s CO2 that is in the atmosphere; I use the term a trillion tonnes. All of the CO2 that has been emitted and caused to be emitted into the air in the industrial age, is about a trillion tonnes. Demonstrably, that is a lethal dose for life on the planet, as we know and like it.

NB: There are claims that we are overfishing the mean but you are implying something different?

RG: I am a terrestrial plant ecologist by profession and on land we have been doing pasture management for 10,000 years. Nobody questions that if the pasture is healthy you can have a large herd of livestock and when the pasture has turned to a desert, you can’t sustain a herd of livestock.

But in the ocean people say the condition of the pasture has nothing to do with the amount of livestock on the pasture. It is all about the harvest. This is just a preposterous idea that overfishing  is the singular issue in the ocean when we clearly have a far more devastating problem in the collapse of ocean pastures into clear blue desert.

So if there is nothing for the fish to eat, you cannot sustain the school of fish.

NB: Can you talk about the now infamous ocean pasture restoration work that you did with the Haida People of British Columbia?

RG: They had come to me from a village of less than 800 people, who said that in all of history, they have known themselves as the People of the Salmon. But the salmon had disappeared and so in 2007, they’d come to me and they said, “can you please try it in our ocean to see if it will bring our salmon back, because today our people cannot catch enough salmon to survive!”

I worked for years with the village and we were funded by the Canadian Federal Government. Every 90 days we wrote a report, and ultimately in 2012, with the support of the Canadian National Research Foundation, who was paying for 50% of the science costs, the village had managed to raise over $2 million from their village trust fund money. 

We set out to sea, myself and a crew of eleven people. We loaded by hand, four thousand 50lb bags of iron dust material onto the ship. We went into the Haida Ocean. The Haida nation is recognised as a sovereign nation that lives as a protectorate within Canada, with all the rights of being Canadians. But they do have absolute sovereignty over their lands and their ocean. 

So the Haida nation passed within their national laws the legislation to approve the project. It was vetted by the Canadian Federal Government every step of the way. The project was all lined up to be monitored and verified and certified as a result.

We dusted a 100 by 100 kilometre patch of ocean in the summer of 2012. The reason we chose the patch of ocean is that there is a gigantic ocean eddy that forms off the Haida Islands, called the Haida Eddy, which is legendary in ocean science. 

We decided we add the dust to the Haida Eddy which is also the nursery pasture for the baby salmon that go to sea. So the hypothesis was: if we can restore this nursery pasture to historic health and abundance, the baby fish when they swim out to sea, instead of mostly starving, will be treated to a feast and survive.

So we did that and the ocean immediately turned from blue to green. We had a lot of scientific hardware aboard, including two Slocum Glider’s, which are state of the art ocean robots, that autonomously swim in the ocean for 3 weeks at a time, surfacing every 2 hours and sending satellite reports back as to what they have seen.

So we collected 164 thousand electronic datapoint from the gliders and data points that we lowered over the side and more than 10 thousand wet ocean plankton samples to measure it. The goal was to bring the fish back.

The village came to me and said “how should we do this?” I said we should create a company to do this under so that we can apply for research grants and funding from different groups. So the company was called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. So the goal from the beginning was to restore the salmon.

It worked. The ocean turned from blue to green. We had the data analysis but the real data that we were hoping and praying would come, would be the fish. The species of salmon that we were targeting was the pink salmon, which is the most abundant of all the Pacific Salmon, that has a 2 year life cycle. 

We knew that, in 2012, the baby salmon would have swam out to sea that Spring, and were either going to live or die based on what they could find to eat. In a year and a half they would come back and by the numbers of fish and the condition of the fish we would know our success: whether we had brought the Haida Salmon back.

So the very next year, 2013, alas in neighbouring Alaska, and we were right on the border with Alaska in Canadian waters, the pink salmon catch was predicted to be 50 million fish. The past year, only 14 million were caught, which is a more normal figure, so 50 million would be a good number.

But by the time the Alaskan pink salmon season finally came to halt in the fall of 2013, 226 million fish had been caught and brought to shore. They only stopped at 226 million because there was no longer any capacity to accept another fish into any other freezing plants or canaries, anywhere in the Pacific north-west. All of the fish handling facilities were just completely over stocked and they had to stop fishing.

We received reports steadily from villages and communities that pink salmon were filling every river and stream, even every rivulet. Probably more than half a billion pink salmon came back. The salmon were the best science result, right?

George’s collected scientific data was destroyed under Canadian federal warrant before the experiment could be completed for review. But despite the raid, the fish had returned to shore, demonstrating that what he, and John Martin before him, had hypothesised was correct. 

NB: Was that the last experiment that you did?

RG: That was the last large experiment that I did. I have been doing small experiments in laboratories, or on small vessels.

NB: Can you now talk about the level of criticism that has been levelled by quite a few others against your method for restoring ocean biomass?

RG: There’s a plethora of criticisms but I am yet to hear one that doesn’t defy the history of ocean science. So people have said, “this is an unnatural event”, or, “It is an intervention by mankind with unnatural products”.

Well absolutely not. Our [collective] intervention is that we have denied the ocean her mineral dust. When the village and I took the the four thousand 50lb bags of mineral dust back to their ocean pasture, their fish came back in the largest numbers in all history. Four times the expected numbers and ten times the average!

We did that in the same location that a few years earlier it had been dusted by an Alaskan volcano, Kasatochi. When the volcano Kasatochi erupted in mid-August 2008, the ash carrying minerals, including iron, landed in the same patch of ocean that we put dust in. Two years later the largest amount of stock-eye salmon landed in the Fraser river.

NB: What about the claims that adding iron to the ocean can cause toxic blooms?

RG: The fact of the matter is that there is 100 years of ocean science studying natural plankton blooms that have resulted from natural upwellings of water. The Galapagos Islands are a source of iron-rich water that produces a bloom known as the Galapagos Bloom. There are hundreds of natural plankton blooms hat have been studied for a hundred years by ocean scientists and never has a report ever surfaced about deleterious effect of plankton in the open ocean. 

Near-shore, there are lots of reports about problems with plankton blooms, but away from shore it is a completely different ecosystem.

The collapse of ocean life due to the high carbon dioxide is today cataclysmic. The fish populations are down to a fraction of their historic numbers. In the north Pacific, the giant blue fin tuna is less than 3% of its historic numbers.

The blame is overfishing but of course that is preposterous because the ocean pastures have died. You could never overfish the last 10% of a population because they are so few and far between you can’t find them! 

So if we restore the ocean pasture of the north pacific the giant blue fin tuna will come back in a matter of 3-5 years. Perhaps in as few as ten years they’ll increase by tenfold or fiftyfold. If we feed them, they’ll come back.

I was in Portugal last year meeting with the Portuguese government talking to them about restoring the sardine pastures off the coast of Portugal, just before they announced there will be a moratorium where they will forbid all sardine fishing for the next 15 years.

The human cry in Portugal says that this will completely destroy the nation because if you go to Portugal you see that sardines are the icon of Portugal. Portugal’s sardines are not dying from overfishing, they are starving to death. 

Can we bring them back? Certainly.

This Author

Nick Breeze blogs at Envisionation and can be followed on Twitter at @NickGBreeze

Russ George will be speaking about restoring ocean pastures on the 24th May as part of Green Culture Week in Montenegro.

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