SINGAPORE (Reuters) - An Australian research body has called for more research into the risks of large-scale ventures to fertilize oceans to boost natural absorption of carbon dioxide.
Following are responses from Dan Whaley, CEO of California-based Climos, which is developing methods to release trace amounts of iron to trigger blooms of tiny phytoplankton in the vast Southern Ocean.
Phytoplankton naturally absorb large amounts of CO2, trapping the carbon inside their cells. When they die, the phytoplankton fall to the ocean floor, locking carbon away for years.
Q: Are you confident iron fertilization, on a long-term basis, will lead to significant and measurable capture of atmospheric CO2?
A: Phytoplankton productivity and its subsequent transport to the deep ocean is responsible for the majority of long-term storage of atmospheric CO2 on earth. We think that experiments by the oceanographic community at larger scales and longer timeframes can help us understand whether this can be meaningfully increased by humans.
Q: Is your current research looking at the risks, or side-effects, that the Australian report mentions?
A: To date, the primary question has been “does it work?” Without this, there was no reason to proceed. Clearly, moving forward the impact of this technique has to be studied in parallel to its effectiveness.
Q: How are your own plans to launch experiments in 2010 in the Southern Ocean coming along? Still on track? If so, how large will these experiments be in terms of area (sq km)?
A: The first window for a project is 2010. The next generation projects that have been discussed by oceanographers are at the scale of 100km in diameter up to about 200km.
Q: Do you agree there is a finite limit to the amount of carbon sequestered by ocean iron fertilization? (The report says about 1 billion tonnes is about the limit for iron seeding.)
A: Iron fertilization is no silver bullet for climate change — which underscores the severity of the problem we have, and the urgency for immediate emissions reductions worldwide. World leaders here (at U.N. climate talks) in Poznan and next year at Copenhagen must find a way to force the largest emitters to agree to caps on emissions as soon as possible.
Scientific studies outline a potential between 1 billion tonnes of carbon (3.7 billion tonnes of CO2) to about 1.8 billion tonnes (6.6 billion tonnes of CO2) of carbon annually done over extended timeframes. You won’t find numbers anywhere near this large with any other single approach.
Iron fertilization must be considered alongside other techniques in the solutions portfolio — let it compete on its merits.
Q: How do you answer the critics who say humans have done enough damage to the environment and shouldn’t be re-engineering the environment to fix a man-made problem, particularly since we don’t fully understand the consequences?
A: This point of view prejudges iron fertilization as dangerous, when in fact we know it’s something that nature does herself and has done at much larger scales for much longer times in the geologic past.
It’s important to remember that if there is ever anything that we find that leads us to believe that long term it’s either ineffective or a bad idea, it can be stopped. We know from the geologic record that the ocean relaxes to the previous state.
Q: Briefly explain how Climos is working with the scientific community and regulators in trying to research iron fertilization to test impacts and ensure measurable CO2 capture.
A: Over the last year regulators at the London Convention have looked closely at OIF (ocean iron fertilization) and decided that legitimate scientific research should move forward. Our goal at Climos is to provide the substantial capital and logistical support required for scientists from the oceanographic community to be able to do more comprehensive tests.
Q: Lastly, explain why you think this is essential, why it’s not the scary science many believe.
A: Phytoplankton are nature’s way of sequestering CO2 to the deep ocean, where nearly ninety percent of earth’s carbon lies. Further, most everything we put up in the air is going to the deep ocean eventually. The only question is how long it takes.
Over the last billion years, nearly 90 percent of all carbon has wound up at the bottom of the ocean — 50 times what exists in the atmosphere. Phytoplankton productivity is what put it there.
Editing by Megan Goldin