Carbon export is dead stuff and poop, and so are Planktos’ arguments

Usually a good rant leaves me feeling pleasingly released of my usual load of cynicism and anger. But I found myself unsatisfied by my last post on iron fertilization. It occured to me that I had not read Planktos’ ever-so-lofty and dismissive “Response to Current Controversies.”, closely enough, especially now that they’re getting national media attention.

So I did. It was HORRIFYING. I’m appalled Planktos has even gotten off the ground with such poor, nonsensical science. So here’s their claims one-by-one with my rebuttal. Full citations are available upon request. Thanks again to Rick MacPherson for pointing me in the right direction.

Regarding claims that our pilot project will somehow affect the Galapagos ecosystem
First, we are not working close enough to the Galapagos to affect its lush ecosystem in any way. Our pilot project is over 350 kilometers to the west of the islands where currents will bear any plankton we restore even further away to the west-northwest. Second this is the same area ocean scientists conducted some of the first iron fertilization experiments over a decade ago, all of which were intensely studied and showed no harmful effects at all. Finally, the Galapagos ecosystem is thriving precisely because of the many thousands of tons of iron that annually leach from the volcanic substructure of the isles themselves. It is this profuse iron source that creates the flourishing Galapagos “plume” of plankton life that nourishes the region’s great biodiversity. Adding any more iron to this iron saturated area would not harm anything, but it would be pointless in the extreme.

To my knowledge, this is all correct. The Galapagos marine ecosystem is productive because of rich nutrients, including plenty of iron. More iron would not change things very much. The first iron fertilization experiments to which Planktos is referring is probably Iron-Ex II, the first successful demonstration of iron limitation in the ocean, shown as B on this map.

Regarding allegations that Planktos is setting out to “dump” “pollutants” in the sea
Mother Nature’s winds have been annually “dumping” tens of millions of tons of this same “pollutant” into the open sea for millions of years, which is why the ocean is the greatest source of oxygen, biomass and biodiversity on the planet today. Human activities have reduced that life-giving wind-borne iron supply by 25% in the last thirty years, taking a tenth of all plankton life with it and making this work necessary. We will be using hematite iron, which is one of the most common elements on/in the earth, and ferrous sulfate, which is the primary ingredient in all our iron deficiency tonics and pills. And we will be adding it to iron starved waters in parts per trillion doses or about a billion times less than children’s iron supplements and a hundred million times less than mother’s milk. Calling a vital micronutrient like iron in this immeasurably dilute concentration a “pollutant” is clearly unscientific and completely untrue.

Now this is pretty disingenous. There are a lot of critical natural substances, like nitrogen and phospherous, that act like pollutants when they’re where they’re not supposed to be. (Like, say, in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.) Nutrient enrichment – and iron is a nutrient – is a huge problem. The comparison to children’s vitamins and mother’s milk is both ludicrous and totally irrelevant.

Regarding charges that Planktos is using dangerous nanotechnology
Calling natural iron dust and the same pharmaceutical iron we give our kids in vitamin pills “dangerous nanotechnology” is certainly attention-getting and inflammatory, but it is also quite absurd.

Well, as far as I know, they’re just using iron filings, nothing “nano” about it.

Regarding claims that iron replenishment will alter or disturb ocean ecosystems
Planktos chose the ocean regions we will be working in precisely because these areas are already profoundly disturbed and have lost nearly 50% of their plankton life in the last 25 years. Since these tiny plants are the basic food source for every larger creature in these waters, it’s as if a two decade drought killed off half of every food crop in a country. In such a famine, adding a little silver iodide to seed clouds and bring some rain would certainly “alter” the starved ecosystem, but what exactly would be “disturbed”?

What?! Where on earth are they getting this? The link they provide for their 50% statistic is broken. The only source I can think of is Roemmich & McGowan 1995, but zooplankton levels have since rebounded. And HNLC zones (high-nutrient, low-chorophyll aka iron-limited) are not disturbed – they have naturally low productivity due to their isolation from land and oceanographic structure. Adding iron would certainly counts as a disturbance!

Regarding statements that restoring iron and plankton constitute “geoengineering”
Restoring creatures or ecosystems gravely harmed by human activity is not “geoengineering.” It is usually called planetary healing, environmental stewardship or just merciful common sense. If ocean restoration is now to be labeled geoengineering then so must efforts to halt desertification, replant lost rainforests, and bring our wetlands back to health.

Hmm. Not sure Planktos really wants to use wetlands as an example, since most man-made wetlands are devoid of animal life. Allowing companies to destroy natural wetlands in return for building new ones has been a disaster, not a role model.

Regarding concerns that the scale of our pilot projects may be too large
To put this work in perspective, wind storms from the Sahara blow over 100 million tons of fine mineral dust across the Atlantic each year, which annually “fertilizes” the mid-ocean with nearly 3 million tons of hematite iron. If our critics were correct, this enormous iron “dump” should be causing an unmitigated marine disaster instead of one of the healthiest and most bountiful ecosystems on Earth. Furthermore, the quantity of iron (tens of tons) we will be using in these pilot projects is exactly the amount earlier iron fertilization researchers called for in future tests after their original ten trials (with up to 9 tons of iron) created uniformly healthy blooms and no ill effects.

This is another major fallacy. By this logic, lots of nutrients is good for one place, so it must be good for everywhere. This is obviously not true to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention. Putting nutrients where they don’t belong has been disastrous in lots of places, from Chesapeake Bay to coral reefs all over the world. The mid-Atlantic has naturally high iron from the Sahara. HNLC zones have naturally low iron. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.

Regarding statements that bloom-sequestered carbon can not be accurately measured or verified
Recently both Science and Nature published major studies of carbon export that reliably measured the descent of plankton carbon to a thousand meters or more where it is isolated from the atmosphere for many centuries. Such measurements are the basis of carbon offset verification and readily accomplished with available technology and proper scientific review. And to fulfill certified performance standards, Planktos projects will be overseen by independent third party verifiers who can attest to our methods and the results that have been achieved.

Well, many studies have measured the descent of planktonic carbon – it’s just that the carbon that gets sequestered is less than 1% of what gets made on the surface. Just having crap sink doesn’t mean that significant Co2 is removed from the atmosphere. So to get measurable carbon sequestration over a meaningful time scale, there has to be a LOT of fertilization. Also, I have no idea what Science & Nature papers Planktos is referring to – Science alone has 489 articles from the last year that deal with marine carbon.

Regarding suggestions that this work violates the precautionary principle
Restoring a decimated wildlife population back to its native habitat does not violate the precautionary principle. Trying to artificially push a population beyond its original numbers very well may. Therefore Planktos has always championed a bright line limit on iron replenishment once plankton are returned to the baseline levels NASA and NOAA deemed normal from 1979-81.

Oh, dear. For one thing, there’s no proof that plankton levels are depleted. For the umpteenth time, HNLC zones ARE NATURAL. For another thing, there is no such thing as “normal baseline levels” – the Pacific has many fluctuatations that are not well understood. El Nino is just a small part of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. A quick glance at NOAA data shows that 1979-1981 were not especially anomalous, but also illustrates that three years is far, far, far too short of a time to come up with anything remotely resembling a real baseline.

Regarding claims this work still requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA)
Various international ocean science agencies spent nearly $100 million conducting the first ten iron fertilization trials which represent the most multifaceted marine EIA ever undertaken. No observations of negative impacts of any kind were ever reported. Our pilot projects themselves are the only practical way to generate the data needed to continue that EIA, since the only meaningful way to tell if a larger bloom will differ from all the earlier harmless trials is by actually creating one and carefully measuring its effects.

Well, that depends what you mean by negative impacts. Most iron fertilization studies reported huge community change, going tiny low-nutrient adapted picoplankton to big nutrient-sucking diatoms. By EIR standards, massive community change = negative impact.

Regarding fears our pilot projects may trigger toxic plankton blooms
In the 150+-year history of ocean science, harmful plankton blooms have rarely ever been reported in pelagic (open ocean) regions and never in the areas where we will be conducting our pilot projects. Nor did any of the ten earlier international iron fertilization trials ever report any such effects. Nevertheless we and other independent scientists will be carefully monitoring all the plankton species in our blooms and seeding them far out to sea where they cannot reach land or coastal fisheries anytime during their 4~6 month life cycles.

That’s just wrong. Previous iron fertilization experiments have stimulated the toxic diatom Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces the highly damaging neurotoxin domoic acid. Now, iron fertilization didn’t cause a bloom of just Pseudo-nitzschia, but there was way more Pseudo-nitzschia than there would have otherwise been. See de Baar 2005 for a nice synthesis.

Regarding warnings that restoring plankton will dangerously increase nitrous oxide and methane.
These speculations are based more upon disputed theories and computer models than empirical evidence. NO2 and methane are naturally emitted in trace amounts from all active ocean ecosystems, but the vast natural blooms around the world would have overwhelmed the planet and climate with these gases millennia ago if these dire claims were true. Nevertheless we and other researchers will be monitoring our work for these emissions and if observed, calculating their impact on our net carbon sequestration effect.

It’s not just NO2 and methane. Liss et al (2006) found that levels of the atmospherically reactive methyl iodide (CH3I), methyl nitrate (CH3ONO2) and dibromochloromethane (CHBr3) increased after iron fertilization. CH3I may react with ozone to contribute to the ozone-depletion problem. The effects of the other two are unclear, though they are known to be reactive in the troposphere. Another gas, dimethyl sulfide (DMS) may act as a global coolant by generating particles in the atmosphere that scatter and deflect sunlight, and perhaps serving as the “seeds” for cloud formation (Deal 2006).

Planktos is just committing the same fallacy again and again. Natural algal blooms may be having a huge effect on climate – it’s just they’ve been occuring for thousands of years and we’re used whatever that effect is. There’s no telling what unprecedented huge algal blooms in non-fertile areas might do.

Regarding assertions plankton restoration will not draw down significant amounts of CO2 or have much climatic effect
All scientific evidence indicates that full restoration of plankton populations to known 1980 levels of health could annually remove 3~4 billion tons of atmospheric CO2 or half our global warming surplus today. The original ocean iron trials and more recent carbon export studies suggest this could be accomplished quite safely and efficiently; and that hopeful possibility is what our pilot projects are designed to explore.

“All scientific evidence?!!” Not so, no so. For just one example, Aumont et al (2006) found that fertilizing the entire ocean for 100 years would only result in a 33 ppm reduction in CO2. That’s pocket change when CO2 levels are predicted to go up by 170 ppm by the end of the century.

And again with the fake baseline of “1980 level of health.” Sheesh.

Regarding charges that iron replenishment/plankton restoration work is only about money
There are a host of compelling moral, ethical and ecological reasons to start this food chain rescue work and finally practice ocean stewardship quite apart from their climatic or carbon credit benefits. Unfortunately, there was no support anywhere for such an effort until the Kyoto Protocol created opportunities for green investors to undertake it and try to do well and good at the same time.

“Food chain rescue work.” If you want to rescue the food chain, it’s really the top predators that are in serious decline. Commercial species like swordfish and bluefin tuna, bycatch species like sharks and turtles, coral reef species like grouper – all are being driven to ecological extinction. As far as we know, plankton is not the problem here.

So if you’ve made it this far, I salute you. To be honest, I don’t think that Planktos’ pilot experiments will be terribly damaging – there have been lots of iron fertilization experiments, and they had only local effects. But if this is the level of science that they’re doing, I sure hope somebody makes them come up with some better reasoning before they start dumping iron every which way.

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11 Responses to Carbon export is dead stuff and poop, and so are Planktos’ arguments

  1. […] For my exhaustive review of Planktos’ claims, go here. […]

  2. […] Carbon export is dead stuff and poop, and so are Planktos’ arguments […]

  3. Nick says:

    Got any better solutions? We have been destroying and massively polluting the planet on a global scale for a century.

    Where were all the people who are making such a large uproar about this–then? You yourself admitted that it’s not that damaging, so why oppose it and thrash their claims.

    It reminds me of how everybody trashed Al Gore and his video for making global warming a household name. Truth is that many people would have preferred to just sweep it under the rug like we have been doing for the last 100 years (lot’s of money at stake for some). We should have placed him on a pedestal for exposing it to the extent he did.

    Ignoring the problem and useless debate hasn’t gotten us any where. Time to work together. Are you gonna start a business trying to save the planet. What are you doing besides driving your car and using your lights?

    Wake up people, who cares about a little iron pollution.

    It’s 1/100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. the pollution that we have already put into the planet for the last 100 years.

    And that pollution was in the name of “what”?

    Nothing…..exactly!–That pollution was in the name of, “cheap gas prices”?

    The damage is done.

    Of course everyone is optimistic about the future. Were not all gonna run around spreading worldwide panic about the end of the world!

    The time for debate is over, it’s been over for the last 15 years. At this point if your not part of the solution, your just part of the problem.

    Nah, maybe your right, lets just beat up on Planktos for trying to help the future of civilization and the generations to come.

    Wake up call! The alarms sounded along time ago! The fire is already out of control.

    Here is a perfect analogy, the earth being the (building), and what your nay say does to the effort to save it.

    “The building is roaring engulfed in flames and it will take a miracle to save it. Every one is just standing there, in fact their throwing matches and buckets of gas on it because all they know how to do is what they’ve been doing for the last 100 years.

    But there are a few who are actually taking action and looking for solutions. Along comes a guy (Planktos) and says hey I found a bucket of this stuff, it might work but we’ll have to try a little.

    No one really knows for sure if it could work, but even if it’s flammable it can’t compare to even 1/1000 th of the gas we are pouring on it now.

    You say,,,, No, No, let’s not try that, no way, we shouldn’t do it!

    If it were the 1950’s I’d agree with your criticism but at this point we don’t have much to loose, let them do their research. Unless you are getting paid by the oil companies, then I’m just wasting my breath!

  4. Finalist says:

    Well I have my finals viva this week which includes some stuff on iron fertilisation so I’m spending my today reading reviews and things to make sure there’s nothing I haven’t thought of. While I don’t agree with everything written here, it’s certainly very useful to have arguments by Planktos and against Planktos in one space.

  5. menpachi says:

    i just happened on this thread and note that the biggest issue, effectiveness, has not been fully addressed. how efficient can fe fertilization be at reducing atm co2 when more than 99% of the resulting org c is remineralized in the surface mixed layer? very little makes it way to the depths which is where it needs to be for it to be isolated from the amosphere for a few thousand years… nice blog lil’ oyster.

  6. […] Craig’s post, Miriam on The Oyster’s Garter leveled a comprehensive dismantling of the science behind the compan….  “I’m appalled Planktos has even gotten off the ground with such poor, nonsensical […]

  7. […] this post, Miriam on The Oyster’s Garter leveled a comprehensive dismantling of the science behind the comp….  “I’m appalled Planktos has even gotten off the ground with such poor, nonsensical […]

  8. Casual Observer says:

    This sounds like what they’re doing somewhere west of Haida Gwaii, with 100 metric tonnes of iron. So what is the effect of dumping iron (magnetic) near an undersea volcano system? What is the effect of the Haida eddies, which tend to fix particulate matter in place on the Bowie Seamount? What happens when you put magnetic material a known magnetic anomaly: a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, strangely an oblique thrust in a fault zone known for its strike-slip movement?

    The group responsible for putting iron in the ocean off the short of Haida Gwaii is awfully quiet since the earthquake. What is the real agenda for this iron dumping, other than profit?

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