Geoengineering — the manipulation of the environment as an effort to mitigate the effects of man-made global warming — is controversial among scientists as it could result in unintended consequences in the environment. For this reason, such experiments are often highly regulated and some are even thought of as “mad-scientist” ideas.
It was recently revealed that the one of the largest geoengineering experiments, which some are calling illegal, has been taking place off the coast of Canada. The Guardian, which investigated the story and reported on it Monday, said it is being called a “blatant violation” of a moratorium in place by the United Nations.
The Guardian reports that as seen in satellite images, a large amount of iron sulfate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean by Russ George, who is the former CEO of Planktos, Inc., as part of a project to spur a phytoplankton bloom. This bloom would create a carbon dioxide sink, which is a form of geoengineering called “ocean fertilization.”
The Guardian reports that in this satellite image from August 2012, the yellow and brown indicate high levels of chlorophyll from a phytoplankton bloom. (Image: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA via The Guardian)
Here’s what the Californian man, who is reported to have tried to conduct similar experiments in the Galapagos and Canary Islands, had to say about the project, according to the Guardian:
George says his team of unidentified scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from US agencies like NASA and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. He told the Guardian that it is the “most substantial ocean restoration project in history,” and has collected a “greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before”.
“We’ve gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilisation],” George said. “And the news is good news, all around, for the planet.”
The Guardian states that the island village of Haida Gwaii agree to the experiment and put forward some of their own funds as well. Haida’s president Guujaaw is reported as saying he would not have done this if he had known it was a violation or that it could have negative consequences. Guujaaw says he was told the experiment could benefit the salmon population.
Encouraging a phytoplankton bloom, such as this one in the South Atlantic Ocean, is a form of geoengineering. (Image: Wikimedia)
In a separate post Wednesday, The Guardian also states that the Canadian government has been accused of knowing about the experiment. John Disney, who is reported to be the president of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation and a colleague of George’s, said in a radio interview that people within the Canadian Revenue Agency, the National Research Council and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada were informed of the experiment. The Guardian itself claims to have seen correspondence that alludes to the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation and Environment Canada meeting. It states that the government agency seems to have “expressed their misgiving about any ocean fertilisation going forward” but it doesn’t appear to have gone further than that.
“Canadian government people have been helping us,” George told The Guardian “We’ve had workshops run where we’ve been taught how to use satellites resources by the Canadian space agency. [The government] is trying to ‘cost-share’ with us on certain aspects of the project. And we are expecting lots more support as we go forward.”
Environment Canada itself is not commenting as it conducts its own investigation.
Scientists are concerned over how long ocean fertilization would be able to sequester carbon dioxide. The Times Colonist reports climate scientist with the University of Victoria Andrew Weaver saying while there is evidence iron sulfate can cause algal blooms, there is no indication it would help a salmon population. Weaver also expressed concern over the potential for ocean acidification or that carbon dioxide could be released back into the atmosphere after being captured for a time.
Weaver mentions carbon credits, which is what The Guardian alleges George was after with this experiment, saying he won’t get revenue from credits as there is no evidence of this technique being a permanent carbon sink.
As for the U.N. moratorium on ocean fertilization experiments, The Guardian has George’s saying it does not apply to this project. But Kristina Gjerde with the International Union for Conservation of Nature told The Guardian that regardless of if the iron compound was dumped into the ocean for a geoengineering experiment or to help the fish population, it “should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation.”
The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, which describes itself as an “ocean stewardship and biotechnology company,” states that it believes an increase in phytoplankton will lead to a more salmon-friendly environment by restoring the health of the food chain. In its ocean news current events section, which includes news stories from other sources that help explain “our reason for being,” the organization includes some stories supporting research that found iron can initiate growth of phytoplankton that could act as a carbon sink to reduce ocean acidification.