Sound Science or Fertilization Folly?
Air Date: Week of May 30, 2003
As carbon trading markets gear up, entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make money while helping curb climate change. Journalist Wendy Williams talks with host Steve Curwood about one scheme to sequester carbon in the seas by seeding algae blooms with iron.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a principal trigger of global warming, so anything that reduces it addresses the problem. The simplest thing is to use non-polluting energy such as sun, wind and the earth's natural heat. But with society so dependent on fossil fuels, science and industry are busy exploring ways to get CO2 out of the air. A tree, for example, turns CO2 into wood, thereby sequestering the carbon for decades or more. And there is money to be made in the sequestration business. Polluting companies are already claiming so called carbon credits by planting and protecting forests. And another method that's getting attention is "iron fertilization." It relies on microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton. Journalist Wendy Williams reported on this for the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Wendy Williams joins us now.
Wendy, first tell me what do tiny phytoplankton have to do with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
WILLIAMS: Well, the interesting thing about phytoplankton is that they are very, very small, one cell, and they are plant-like. They take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And through a process that we all heard of in eighth grade, photosynthesis, they turn that carbon dioxide into plant material and exhale the oxygen. So, the carbon is incorporated into the body of the organism.
CURWOOD: So, how does this relate to climate change?
WILLIAMS: At this moment, we have an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists and engineers all around the world are struggling to find interesting and useful ways that they can take that carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere out of the atmosphere, and tuck it away in sort of long-term bank accounts where it won't do any harm. One of the ideas that people have been playing around with for the last decade or so is to try to grow phytoplankton in the ocean, incorporate carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that way, and then have that phytoplankton, theoretically, sink to the bottom of the ocean and hide the carbon that we don't want anymore.
CURWOOD: So, how does iron fit into all of this?
WILLIAMS: Well, one of the mysteries of the ocean has long been why certain large parts of the ocean were desert-like. That sounds funny to us because we don't imagine a desert in the ocean. It sounds like an oxymoron. But, as a matter of fact, there are large parts of the ocean where very, very little grows. And scientists have wondered for a long time why that would be so. An oceanographer named John Martin from the west coast, came along at the beginning of the 1990s and theorized that iron was the limiting factor. All of us need iron in order to have cellular processes operate in us, whether we're human beings, animals, or plants.
CURWOOD: But only tiny amounts of iron.
WILLIAMS: Only tiny, tiny trace amounts of iron. Not a very large amount but just a little trace of it is enough to catalyze the reactions and to get things going.
CURWOOD: So, the idea is that iron somehow would make more phytoplankton?
WILLIAMS: John Martin said two things. At the beginning of the 1990s, he had two interesting ideas. His first interesting idea was, if you were to seed parts of the ocean with these tiny trace amounts of iron, phytoplankton would grow there, where they hadn't grown before. His second idea was that if greater amounts of phytoplankton were to grow in the ocean, we would be able to cool the planet and control climate change. He came up with the idea, give me half a tanker of iron, and I'll give you the next Ice Age. The error was that he packaged these two ideas in one wrapper.
Now it turns out, 10 years later, that, in fact, Martin's first idea, seeding the ocean with iron, would, in fact, bring about a greater phytoplankton bloom. But what hasn't turned out is that by increasing the phytoplankton blooms, we can cool the planet. Some very recent science has shown that there are many, many other factors that feed into the system that cools the planet, not just phytoplankton.
CURWOOD: What do scientists say about this? How practical do they say this scheme might be to use iron filings to effect climate change?
WILLIAMS: Initially, three or four years ago, there were some leading oceanographers that were interested in the idea. It did look, from the research that had been done so far, as though seeding the oceans and growing phytoplankton could, in fact, help with global climate change. In the last couple of months, particularly over the last year, many of those scientists have come to say that they really don't think it's a very efficacious idea. It turns out that the amount of iron that you would need, and the amount of phytoplankton that you would have to grow, would be so considerable that it's just not practical.
CURWOOD: What would this do to the biology of the ocean?
WILLIAMS: The scientists that I've spoken with have a number of concerns about how the biology of the ocean could be affected. Inducing large scale phytoplankton blooms in the ocean could deplete the ocean of oxygen which is needed by other organisms that live in the ocean. It could create gaseous effects which might be released back into the atmosphere and heat up the atmosphere, instead of cool it off. It could upset the food chain in the ocean so that other organisms that we hadn't expected to be there and that really don't belong there might suddenly show up. It could be that by adding iron to certain parts of the ocean, we might be encouraging the wrong kinds of phytoplankton to live in the ocean, rather than the kinds of phytoplankton that normally live there. We don't actually know.
CURWOOD: One thing that you said that really intrigued me, the notion that this could perhaps make global warming worse?
WILLIAMS: Well, there is some science now to show that it could have the reverse effect. John Martin was playing around and said a half a tanker of iron will bring you the Ice Age, but some science actually researching that idea has shown that in some cases it could heat up the climate. Large phytoplankton blooms may, in fact, absorb sunlight from the sky, and then may heat up the ocean, which, of course, could heat up the climate. It could have all kinds of effects that we can't foresee.
CURWOOD: So, what else have we learned from real studies of trying to seed the ocean with iron filings, scientific studies?
WILLIAMS: Well, researchers have learned a lot of very profitable things. And every one that I spoke with, all of the researchers with whom I spoke were very enthusiastic about being allowed to go on to continue to do these kinds of small scale studies. They're learning all about carbon pumps. They're learning about ocean circulation. They need to know much, much more about phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is sort of a generic name for a number of different organisms, and we understand very little about them, why they're in the ocean, where they go, who eats them, who eats the ones that ate them. And what researchers are doing now is using this as a kind of tool in order to learn a lot more.
CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, there is some interest in large-scale iron fertilization, iron ocean fertilization projects. Who is interested in promoting such things?
WILLIAMS: There have been several companies that initially thought that it would be a good idea. Seven different patents to date have been taken out on this as a way to sell carbon credits that might or might not be tradable on the international market. Most of them are waiting to see. I went out to California in January to talk with someone who already is out there marketing it.
CURWOOD: What's going on there?
WILLIAMS: Well, I visited with a very nice man named Russ George, who has a website, and tells people that if they want to deal with the carbon that they themselves have helped to put in the atmosphere, they can send him a certain amount of money and he'll seed the ocean with iron for them, grow the phytoplankton, and they will have dealt with their personal carbon obligations that way.
CURWOOD: In fact, do you think folks are going to get the deal that they're looking for?
WILLIAMS: Right now, there's no science that says they will. The science, basically, has panned out to say that that will not occur.
CURWOOD: Now, who oversees what folks like Mr. George and other entrepreneurs are doing?
WILLIAMS: That's one of the problems right now that we're dealing with as a nation and as a world. By not signing the Kyoto Treaty, we are opting out of the supervisory situation which the Kyoto rules are creating, even as we speak. Right now, committees under the supervision of Kyoto are working out what kinds of carbon sequestration ideas are good and healthy for the planet, and they're discarding the ones that they don't think will be useful, and that they don't think will accomplish climate mitigation.
Our country, of course, isn't involved in that right now. We have a more free-for-all kind of situation where someone is out there and throwing out an idea, and if people buy it, then they make money, and if they don't buy it, they don't make money. It's almost as though we went down to the stock market on Wall Street and said okay, you guys, what we want you to do now is to continue to trade your stocks and make your money, but we're not going to be bothering setting up any more rules for you because we don't think you really need the supervision.
CURWOOD: Wendy, explain for me, how would an entrepreneur make money by pouring iron off the side of a boat into the ocean?
WILLIAMS: There are a number of large corporations right now, both based in America and international, multi-nationally based corporations, which have what they are beginning to call carbon obligations. Most large corporations now that emit greenhouse gases understand that they will have to find some ways to control those emissions in order to have the rest of the world look upon them as positive business people. But I think what's happening here, in some cases now, is that people are throwing out certain ideas and seeing if the world buys them. And if the world buys them, these people will make money, whether there's scientific proof or not.
There are some very legitimate carbon sequestration projects out there which, under the Kyoto rules, will actually help to mitigate climate change. It's going to be very difficult for the general public to differentiate between the ones that are legitimate and the ones that really will not work but will help people make money. That's why we need a committee to help us work out the rules because individual people can't know enough to decide whether each project is legitimate or not.
CURWOOD: Wendy Williams is a freelance environmental journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Science, The Boston Globe, Audubon. She received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to research global warming strategies. Thank you for briefing us, Wendy.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome. Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: And to see the complete investigative report by Wendy Williams on Russ George and the iron fertilization schemes, go to our website, livingonearth.org. That's livingonearth.org.
[MUSIC: Wimme “Iras” Gierran Zenmaster (1997)]
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