Iron is a tonic for climate-saving plankton
By Jim Loney and Michael Christie
MIAMI (Reuters) - From the deck of the research ship Weatherbird II, a California company hopes to prove a controversial theory that putting iron dust in the ocean can produce enough plankton to help save the Earth.
The mission of the company behind the ship, Planktos Corp., is to research whether "iron seeding," or "iron enrichment" -- dumping tons of pulverized iron ore into the ocean -- can catalyze the growth of microscopic algae that will then suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
If the research goes well, Planktos aims to make money by fertilizing the ocean, measuring the carbon its plankton forests sequester and selling carbon credits for cash on emerging world carbon markets.
Weatherbird left Florida this month on a mission that has caused consternation among scientists and environmentalists, many of whom do not think the theory has been sufficiently tested to try out on such a large scale.
Oceanographers, who unlike scientific colleagues in fields like pharmaceuticals have not been heavily exposed to business motivations, also appear uneasy about Planktos' aim of making money while fighting climate change.
But the company says it is interested in the potential greater good of iron-enrichment -- taking tons of carbon dioxide, a critical greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, out of the Earth's atmosphere, in the same way a rainforest on land works for the health of the planet.
"We might actually be able to save the planet from the ravages of fossil fuels," Planktos chief executive Russ George told Reuters.
DUST AS A VITAMIN
The theory of iron enrichment was proposed 25 years ago. Iron acts as a vitamin, oceanographers say, enabling plants to take up nutrients.
The theory was greeted as a joke. But it has gained traction since, and adherents.
The emergence of carbon markets, especially in Europe, in which polluters can offset emissions by buying carbon credits from countries or companies that plant forests, has given the proposal commercial allure.
In addition to Planktos, Silicon Valley-based company Climos intends to pursue iron enrichment.
Planktos' plans to seed a patch of ocean, 30 to 60 miles
in diameter, with 50 to 100 metric tonnes of raw iron ore in an area 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, one of the world's most unique ecosystems.
Weatherbird's mission, delayed for months by the late arrival of high-tech equipment, is steeped in secrecy. In a recent phone interview, George said he could not reveal details because of what he said were threats from "radical environmental groups" to halt the mission.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which patrols the Galapagos Islands to protect them from ecological threats, has pledged to stop Planktos.
George said the area near Ecuador's volcanic islands, which lie 625 miles west of the coast, is a perfect place for a test because iron from the islands feed a vast, natural plankton bloom that can serve as a biological control for the experiment.
Environmentalists fear that the test could go awry and threaten the islands, which served as the inspiration for British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
But George said the natural Galapagos bloom drifts west, and so would the one that Planktos hopes to generate.
The iron ore to be used in the test is the same as dust blown naturally by the wind into the ocean, George added.
"Hundreds of millions of tons of dust are landing in the ocean every year. How can anyone suggest that our 50 tonnes of rock dust will provoke some cataclysmic result?"
NOT ENOUGH PROOF?
Oceanographers critical of Planktos say scientists have simply not yet done the work needed to prove that phytoplankton blooms can sequester carbon safely and for the long term.
They also say that while surface water moves westward near the Galapagos, deeper currents go east, toward rich fishing grounds off South America.
"Many scientists think we should try to establish the facts and the downstream consequences of iron enrichment and there are a few non-scientists who think if it can make money we should do it now," said Kenneth Coale, a researcher at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California who has conducted leading work on the subject.
Few of the researchers who consider themselves experts in iron-enrichment appear to know who the scientists are that Planktos intends to take on its experiment.
"It seems more an effort to impress shareholders," Coale said.
There are also questions about whether decaying blooms might produce other, more powerful greenhouse gases.
The legal situation on the high seas is unclear.
Scientists advising signatory nations of the 1972 London Convention on Dumping recently issued a statement of concern, and the members of the convention are expected to try to draw up regulations for iron enrichment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shares the concerns but was told by Planktos that it would not use a U.S. flagged vessel, an EPA spokeswoman said.
"At this stage to have companies out there already wanting to press ahead with commercialization is deeply unhelpful," said David Santillo, a scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Britain. "I think that from the last 15 years of science we know enough to say, 'don't do it."'
Despite the controversy, even the skeptics agree that something must be done to counter global warming, and that cutting pollution levels is no longer enough.
"The overarching thing is that there is definitely a panic about climate. If someone could come up with a quick bandaid fix to this problem they would be a hero to humanity," said Greenpeace research director Kert Davies.
(Editing by Eddie Evans)