What About Geoengineering, Part VII: Plans B & C


Follow the Greenbacks?

In recent posts, I’ve gone on at length about geoengineering, largely because there’s a fair chance it will be deployed, in some form or other, in the not-too-distant future. Some of the world’s top climate scientists, including Ken Caldeira of Stanford and David Keith of Harvard, are promoting geoengineering as a “Plan B” for coping with global warming.[1] Sadly, Plan A—slashing global greenhouse-gas emissions—currently shows little sign of succeeding.

Despite scientists’ efforts to secure government support for geoengineering research, funding is sparse, so the researchers have turned to billionaires, such as N. Murray Edwards, Canadian tar-sands magnate; Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies (Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Galactic, etc.); Niklas Zennström, co-founder of Skype; and Bill Gates, who needs no introduction.[2]

Some observers, who question the tycoons’ motives, ask: Are these billionaires intent on protecting the ecosphere because they’re altruistic or merely getting in on the ground floor of what could become a leviathan industry because they smell money? And what about their scientist-partners? Are they mercenaries? Are they being co-opted by the billionaires, or are they truly on the up-and-up? As Jane Long, former Associate Director-at-Large of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said in an interview: “We will need to protect ourselves from vested interests [to] be sure that choices are not influenced by parties who might make significant amounts of money through a choice to modify climate, especially using proprietary intellectual property.”[3] Expressing a related concern, Diana Bronson, of the environmental watchdog ETC, told a reporter, “the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations.”[4]

While I’m skeptical about the moguls’ motives, as far as I can tell, most of the scientists who promote geoengineering would welcome broader public input and would, in fact, prefer we adopt Plan A and bypass the rationale for jury-rigging the climate altogether. “I have been calling for making CO2 emissions illegal for many years, but no one is listening to me,” Ken Caldeira explained to a reporter.[5] Jane Long made a similar point. In an interview for Yale Environment 360, she said: “Everyone I know who works on this is scared to death of this stuff. People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on reducing CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”[6]

If, until recently, the group of geoengineering advisors has been small enough to fit inside a minivan, the reason might have as much to do with environmentalists’ disdain for geoengineering as with any attempt by the scientists to exclude them. I hardly need to tell you that I’m guilty of this dismissive attitude toward geoengineering myself. I mean no disrespect for the scientists; it’s just that most of their proposals seem to be fraught with unintended consequences and a distraction from attending to the cause of the problem: greenhouse-gas emissions.

And there’s a political consequence: The possibility that scientists and engineers will come up with market-based, technological solutions to global warming gives global-warming deniers another excuse for blocking government action. If record-breaking heat waves or hurricanes as far north as New England and as late as Halloween ever make the refuse-to-acceptniks question the wisdom of continuing to deny the truth of global climate change, they can think: “No problem . . . Plan B. No need to reduce our emissions, the private-sector Superman will come to the rescue!” and then continue with business as usual. Meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise.


If All Else Fails: Plan C

Fearing that politicians will fail to summon the political will to implement Plan A and thinking that Plan B is too risky to be implemented, a team of philosophers have come up with their very own Plan C. What is it? Well, Plan C is “a new kind of solution to climate change that … involves biomedical modifications of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change.”[7] The philosophers call their proposed solution human engineering. It would entail using genetic engineering and hormone therapy to create humans that do the right thing for the ecosphere because they’ve been bioengineered with the environment in mind.

Here’s one example: Because cattle release a lot of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, the philosophers propose “stimulating the [human] immune system against common bovine proteins . . . [in order to] induce unpleasant [digestive] experiences,” as a way to reduce meat consumption. Less beef on the table would mean fewer cattle raised, which would mean less methane emitted.[8]

What other alterations do the philoso-anthropo-neers envision? Well, they imagine genetically engineering human eyes to have catlike pupils for better night vision. (♫ Jeepers, creepers! Where’d ya get those peepers?) Are you wondering what that would do to reverse global warming? Well, it would improve our night vision and thus reduce our need for electric lights, of course!

And while we’re at it, they say, let’s make human beings smaller. “Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size.” Bigger people eat more, their clothes require more fabric, and they use more soap when they bathe. Furthermore, large people use more energy and materials “in less obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person than a lighter person; . . . heavier people wear out shoes, carpets, and furniture more quickly than lighter people, and so on.” So why not use hormone treatments, genetic engineering, or “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” to reduce average human height? And given that more people use more resources, why not lower birthrates through the use of “cognition enhancements,” on the theory that smarter women have fewer children? And maybe we should think about using hormone therapy to enhance altruism and empathy and thereby create individuals who are more likely to “cooperate for the common good.”[9]

Do these ideas seem, perhaps, a bit outré? Un peu out-there, peut-être? Are the philosophers pulling our legs? Apparently not. They stress that they aren’t arguing that we should start engineering humans. Their “central aim,” they say, “is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change.”[10] Meaning no disrespect, I doubt their central aim will be achieved. But the fact that they are promoting it just goes to show how desperate some people are to come up with ways to cope with an out-of-control problem that is getting worse by the second.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” a well-worn aphorism instructs. But are times really so desperate that we need to geoengineer the planet and human-engineer ourselves? Doesn’t it make more sense to reduce our consumption of stuff and consequently cut our greenhouse-gas emissions?

It’s time for us to grow up and recognize that Superman isn’t going to swoop down from the sky and save us. We all have to pitch in. Step One is to stop reaching for material goods and start nurturing living things.


[1] O’Donnell, Erin. “Buffering the Sun: David Keith and the Question of Climate Engineering.” Harvard Magazine. July-August 2013. http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/07/buffering-the-sun

[2] Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.” Guardian. February 5, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/06/bill-gates-climate-scientists-geoengineering

[3] Long, Jane, quoted in Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.”

[4] Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Thinking the Unthinkable: Engineering Earth’s Climate.” Yale Environment 360. Interview. October 12, 2011. http://e360.yale.edu/content/print.msp?id=2452

[7] Liao, S. Matthew, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache. “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” Ethics, Policy and the Environment. Vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 206-221. http://www.smatthewliao.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/HEandClimateChange.htm

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.





What About Geoengineering, Part VI: Why Not Suck It Up?


Near the end of the last post, “What . . . About Geoengineering, Part V,” I mentioned liming the ocean, a geoengineering scheme that would make the ocean more alkaline and thus able to absorb more carbon dioxide. One unfortunate (not to mention ironic) side effect of producing the alkalinizing agent, lime, is that the process generates copious quantities of carbon dioxide. But have no fear! Technology has supplied an answer in the form of carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. So before we move on, I think I should supply a succinct description of this drop-dead-from-boredom-if-you-have-to-read-about-it technology. Here’s one from the Global CCS Institute that, while uninspiring, is at least brief: “The [CCS] technology involves capturing CO2 produced by large industrial plants, compressing it for transportation and then injecting it deep into a rock formation at a carefully selected and safe site, where it is permanently stored.”[1]

So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. The big geoengineering idea, here, is to create a substance, lime, that we can dump into the ocean so that seawater can absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then to bury all of the carbon dioxide that producing the lime creates at a site that will be safe for eternity.

Okay. Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that such a place exists (chortle, chortle). The next question is: How would the carbon dioxide get to the storage site? Well, according to the plan, the gas would be transported via pipeline—miles and miles of pipeline.[2] Unfortunately, moving all that CO2 through long distances of pipe could be hazardous because, as news headlines periodically inform us, pipelines occasionally leak. . . . Which brings us to another problem with carbon capture and sequestration. You’ve heard people use the acronym NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), right? . . . Well, just in case you haven’t, NIMBY is the position most of us take when some entity that could affect our health, nerves, moral sensibilities, or property values announces plans to set up shop (or whatever) nearby. Even if we don’t oppose things like landfills, nuclear-waste dumps, strip clubs, NASCAR tracks, or other smelly, dangerous, raunchy, or noisy entities in principle, we don’t want to be forced to put up with them on a daily basis, so we fight when one of them tries to open up in our neighborhood.

NIMBY is a term that has been around for several decades and has been quite useful. As proposals for carbon-dioxide burial have become more prevalent, however, the need for a new acronym has arisen. So make way NIMBY because here comes NUMBY—which, as you might guess, is short for: Not Under My Back Yard.

In 2010, NUMBY protestors forced an electric utility to abandon plans for carbon sequestration at a site in the Altmark region of Germany. Local residents and environmental groups worried that underground leaks might contaminate groundwater. Even more, they feared being asphyxiated by CO2 due to a sudden, massive release from a pipeline fracture (possibly earthquake induced) or due to gas from an overlooked leak amassing in valleys.[3] The NUMBYists had reason to be concerned: Inhaling air with a carbon-dioxide concentration of ten percent or more can lead to unconsciousness or death.[4] (The normal carbon dioxide content of dry air is about 0.035 percent.) Had the residents of Altmark acceded to the utility’s plan, not only would they have had to live with the threat of gas leaks, so would all their descendants, henceforward. Perhaps the ethical implications of consigning a growing risk to people not yet born figured in their opposition to the proposed storage site. In any case, Altmark is not unique.[5] NUMBYism is a likely obstacle to carbon-capture-and-sequestration wherever it is proposed.

So maybe the plan for taking carbon dioxide out of the air by liming the ocean (and then sequestering the CO2 that results from producing the lime) has its faults. But no worries. Inquiring minds have offered alternative proposals for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Take for example, rock smashing and scattering. Professor Toshinori Kojima of Seikei University in Tokyo and three of his colleagues decided to examine the feasibility of pulverizing the alkaline rocks wollastonite and olivine to speed up the weatherization process after learning that the “weathering of alkaline rocks . . . played a role in the historical reduction in the atmospheric CO2 of this planet.” Their experiments led them to conclude: “CO2 absorption by rock weathering is one of the most promising measures for [the] CO2 problem.”[6] That was in 1997. Since then, the results of other crushed-rock studies have been less promising. Two German professors, Jens Hartmann and Stephan Kempe determined, for example, that if finely ground silicate rocks were “applied homogenously on all agricultural and forested areas of the world,” less than one percent of anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions would be sequestered. Moreover, applying the pulverized rock would be too expensive to be practical due to logistical issues. Worse still, the CO2 sequestered by the ground rock would probably “amount to only a fraction” of the CO2 that would be released during the spreading of the rock over all those fields and forests. Hartmann and Kempe concluded that stimulated weathering (that is, the spreading around of pulverized rocks) “would thus not be one of the key techniques to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration.”[7]

No matter. Geoengineers have more rabbits and more hats. One idea, called “direct air capture,” would suck CO2 right out of the air by passing it through a scrubber, made of an array of fans, with “cleverly contrived surfaces along which an absorbing fluid flows.”[8] After scrubbing, the CO2 would be concentrated and thus easier to sequester underground. Cost estimates for removing a ton of carbon dioxide through direct air capture range from about $20 to $2,000.[9] Given that mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels currently puts about 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, we would spend from $800 billion to $80 trillion to capture one year’s worth of carbon-dioxide emissions using direct air capture if we went on polluting at the current rate.[10]

So now, if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to repeat the question I asked at the end of the last post: Which of the following makes more sense to you: (a) deploying one of these (#?%&*!!) geoengineering schemes or (b) acting as individuals to lessen our greenhouse-gas emissions by reducing our consumption of resources and production of wastes?


[1] Global CCS Institute. “What is CCS?” http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/content/what-ccs

[2] Dooley, James J., Robert T. Dahowski, and Casie L. Davidson.  2009.  “Comparing Existing Pipeline Networks with the Potential Scale of Future U.S. CO2 Pipeline Networks.”  In Energy Procedia: Ninth International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies. Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1595-1602.  London: Elsevier.

[3] Kanter, James. “Obstacles to Capturing Carbon Gas.” New York Times. July 31, 2011.

[4] Mallinger, Stephen. “Potential Carbon Dioxide (CO(2)) Asphyxiation Hazard When Filling Stationary Low Pressure CO(2) Supply Systems.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. June 5, 1996. http://www.osha.gov/dts/hib/hib_data/hib19960605.html

[5] Kanter, James. “Obstacles to Capturing Carbon Gas.”

[6] Kojima, T., A. Nagamine, N. Ueno, and S. Uemiya. 1997. “Absorption and Fixation of Carbon Dioxide by Rock Weathering.” Energy Conversion and Management. Vol. 38, Supplement, pp. S461-S466.

[7] Hartmann, Jens, and Stephan Kempe. 2008. “What Is the Maximum Potential for CO2 Sequestration by ‘Stimulated’ Weathering on the Global Scale?” Naturwissenschaften. Vol. 95, no. 12, pp. 1159-1164. (Emphasis added.)

[8] “Geoengineering: Lift-off.” Economist. November 4, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17414216

[9] Sarewitz, Daniel, and Rober Pielke, Jr. “Learning to Live with Fossil Fuels.” The Atlantic. May 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/05/learning-to-live-with-fossil-fuels/309295/ (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[10] International Energy Agency. “Global Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Increase by 1.0 Gt in 2011 to Record High.” May 24, 2012. http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/news/2012/may/name,27216,en.html (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

What About Geoengineering, Part V: Why Not OIF It Up?


Part IV of “What . . . About Geoengineering” discussed a plan for reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by fertilizing the ocean with iron. According to the plan, the iron would promote the growth of algae, which would diminish the ranks of carbon-dioxide molecules by absorbing the carbon. Ultimately, the heroic little algae would die and carry the absorbed carbon to its final resting place on the ocean floor, where it would remain (with any luck) for eternity.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *

And now, with that brief recap of Part IV, we’re back up to speed, so let’s talk about some reasons why ocean iron fertilization (OIF) might not be such a great idea.

Let’s start with what happened when the “Lohafex project” fertilized a 116-square-mile (300-square-kilometer) patch of the Southern Ocean with six metric tons of iron. Initially, the fertilization appeared to be a success. Just as in previous experiments, a floating green carpet of algae quickly covered the undulating waters. Before two weeks had passed, however, the algae (not being the brightest of creatures) had forgotten that the scientists had only created this hospitable environment for the sake of carbon-dioxide absorption. And the little green dickens, instead of focusing on the job at hand, had taken it upon themselves to act out their autotrophic, bottom-of-the-food-chain role! As you might imagine, the scientists were more than a little dismayed when they discovered that a herd of copepods (tiny crustaceans) were gobbling up their algae. Due to the copepods’ gobbling, few of the algae lived long enough to die from natural causes and drop to the ocean floor. Professor Victor Smetacek explained the significance of the experiment’s outcome, saying: “What it means is the Southern Ocean cannot sequester the amount of carbon dioxide that one had hoped.”[1] Alas and alack.

So one problem with ocean iron fertilization is that it depends on algae remembering that they’ve only been bred to absorb CO2: Any extra-curricular oceanic activities are strictly verboten. To put it another way, OIF is ineffective if various sea critters gulp up the algae before the algae have had a chance to gulp up the carbon and deposit it on the ocean floor.[2] That’s Problem #1. Problem #2 is the actual—as opposed to theoretical—cost. The actual cost would depend on the effectiveness of each voyage. If the first voyage failed to produce significant results, then another or perhaps several subsequent voyages would be required, raising the cost substantially. Said seagoing scientist Ken Buesseler: “You would have to keep doing it over, and if you wanted to have a big impact the size of the area required is bigger than the Southern Ocean.”[3] OIF is unlikely to be cheap, in other words.

A third potential problem: Successful algal blooms could deplete the water of vital nutrients, such as nitrate, phosphate, and silica.[4] Which brings us to Problem #4. If the fertilization were to work as planned, and each little alga, plumped up with carbon, found its way to the bottom of the sea, the decomposition of the sunken algae’s organic matter could deprive the deep ocean—and the life therein—of oxygen; or, Problem #5, the decomposition could release methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are more potent greenhouse gases than CO2.[5] (Phew!)

But that’s not all. Problem #6: Studies have shown that enriching ocean waters with iron stimulates the growth of a diatom, Pseudonitzschia, which produces a neurotoxin, domoic acid.[6] That’s bad news for us because we can sustain permanent brain damage (from amnesic shellfish poisoning) if we eat seafood contaminated by the neurotoxin.[7] Problem #7: Dumping iron in any sizeable amount violates an international treaty, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, so parties to the treaty would have to agree to amend it for full-scale OIT to take place.[8] Problem #8: If we make this our strategy for counteracting the impact of ongoing CO2 emissions, we’re going to have to commit ourselves to managing the oceans indefinitely. Field tests have already shown us some side effects of OIF, but who the heck knows what all the unintended consequences—biological, ecological, and geopolitical—would be?

So maybe ocean iron fertilization does have a few flaws. But, prithee, me hearty, and shiver me timbers; do not discouraged be, for geoengineers have come up with another ocean-centered, carbon-dioxide-removal proposal. They call this one: “liming the ocean.” (Blimey, limey!) Liming is a bit like OIF. You sail out to sea, but when you reach your destination, instead of adding iron, “you put the lime in the coconut,” I mean, you stir a bit of lime (derived from limestone) into the water, and the lime, which is alkaline, makes the saltwater less acidic, and that enables the water to absorb more carbon dioxide.[9] Problems? Yes. Some known; others yet to be discovered. One of the known problems is that the lime-producing process is energy intensive. It requires heating limestone carbonate rocks to “drive off” the carbon dioxide and then finding somewhere to sequester the driven-off CO2.[10]

And that’s a bit of a problem because, in the words of Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute, “carbon dioxide is a worthless waste product.”[11] We might get rid of a bit of it by injecting it into oilfields or selling some of it for use in chemicals and soda pop as China does, but, currently, there really isn’t much of a market for the stuff. So if we decide to get into the carbon-capture-and-sequestration business, taxpayers will likely be on the hook for transporting and storing the CO2, and we would have to commit to keeping it safely in storage for a very long time, if not forever.[12]

So now that you’ve read the above, which of the following makes more sense to you: (a) deploying one of these (#?%&*!!) plans to geoengineer the ocean or (b) acting as individuals to lessen our greenhouse-gas emissions by reducing our consumption of resources and production of wastes?

While you’re pondering that question, I’ll be busy preparing Part VI. So please join me for the next installment of “What You Always Wanted to Know About Geoengineering but Were Afraid to Ask,” which will (most likely) discuss the thrilling topic of carbon sequestration. In the meantime, rest up and prepare yourself for our next rip-roaring adventure!


[1] Black, Richard. “Setback for Climate Technical Fix.” BBC News. March 23, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7959570.stm (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dawicki, Shelley. “News Release: Effects of Ocean Fertilization with Iron to Remove Carbon Dioxide from the Atmosphere Reported.” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. April 16, 2004. http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?cid=886&ct=162&pid=9779&tid=282 (Accessed December 4, 2013.)

[4] Powell, Hugh. “Fertilizing the Ocean with Iron.” Oceanus. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. November 13, 2007. http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=34167 (Accessed December 4, 2013.)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Trick, Charles G., Brian D. Bill, William P. Cochlan, Mark L. Wells, Vera L. Trainer, and Lisa D. Pickell. “Iron Enrichment Stimulates Toxic Diatom Production in High-Nitrate, Low-Chlorophyll Areas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 107, no. 13, pp. 5887-5892. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/13/5887.full.pdf+html (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[7] Fehling, Johanna, David H. Green, Keith Davidson, Christopher J. Bolch, and Stephen S. Bates. 2004. “Domoic Acid Production by Pseudo-Nitzschia Seriata (Bacillariophyceae) in Scottish Waters.” Journal of Phycology. Vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 622-630.

[8] Webersik, Christian. 2010. Climate Change and Security: A Gathering Storm of Global Challenges. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger; Black, Richard. “Setback for Climate Technical Fix.” BBC News. March 23, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7959570.stm (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[9] Society of Chemical Industry. “Adding Lime to Seawater May Cut Carbon Dioxide Levels Back to Pre-Industrial Levels.” Science Daily. July 21, 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080721001742.htm (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[10] The Royal Society. 2009. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. RS Policy Document 10/09. London: Royal Society, p. 14.

[11] Bryce, Robert. “A Bad Bet on Carbon.” New York Times. May 12, 2010.

[12] Ibid.

What . . . About Geoengineering . . . Part IV: Shall We OIF?


If you’re puzzled by the question in the title because you don’t know what “OIF” means, please stand by. An explanation is forthcoming. But, first, I think I should mention that the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making the ocean more acidic.[1] As a result, species that depend on calcification, such as corals, mollusks, and even some types of algae, are being affected. And when they suffer, species up the food chain suffer, too. According to biologists who made a case study of Tatoosh Island, just off the northwest corner of Washington state, populations of gulls and murres declined 50 percent over a decade due, the researchers suspect, to the damage inflicted on their food supply by increased ocean acidity.[2] Fisherman and scientists in Alaska worry about the impact of “corrosive waters” on halibut, salmon, and smelt.[3]

Given that oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, the fact that CO2 is acidifying the world’s oceans is a very big deal. So geoengineers have come up with a few ideas for making the water less acidic. One of them, known as ocean iron fertilization (or OIF, for short), involves dumping tons of iron into the sea.

Why OIF-up the ocean? Well, because lush blooms of algae could grow in some parts of the ocean where they don’t grow now—if only the water contained more of the essential nutrient iron. And more algae might be helpful because, while alive, the little green organisms would absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and then, when they passed away, their itty-bitty bodies would sink to the ocean floor, taking the absorbed carbon with them. Once the algae carried the carbon to the bottom of the sea, it would remain locked up there indefinitely. So, if more iron in the water would mean more algae, and more algae would mean less atmospheric CO2, and less atmospheric CO2 would mean less global warming, then why not dump a little iron in the water? That’s the question a group of scientists pondered, anyway.

So they donned their lab coats and got to work. In beaker experiments, they found that for every one part of iron they added, algae sequestered 100,000 parts of carbon.[4] Based on those encouraging laboratory results, groups of geoengineering scientists took to the sea to conduct field experiments. A 1995 iron sprinkling of the equatorial Pacific reportedly turned “[c]rystal-clear blue water . . . green overnight as plankton bloomed by the ton.” Recalling the experience for a reporter, Canadian oceanographer Bill Cochian gushed, “It was almost frightening the change was so massive!” According to Cochian, in the wake of the half-metric-ton iron dump, the algae population increased thirty-fold and sucked nearly 2,500 metric tons of CO2 from the air.[5]

Twelve years later, scientists who gathered for an ocean-iron-fertilization conference at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported far less impressive results, however. In each of twelve separate experiments (six in the Southern Ocean, four in the northwest Pacific, and two in the equatorial Pacific), the algae population did multiply rapidly after the introduction of iron. In some cases, the surface waters’ chlorophyll content (which scientists use as a proxy for algae because it is easier to measure than individual algae are to count) increased as much as fifteen-fold. Unfortunately, however, “[o]nly a tiny fraction of the carbon drawn down by blooms [sunk] from the surface into deeper waters.” According to Philip Boyd, of the New Zealand National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, approximately 200 tons of carbon were sequestered for every one ton of iron added to the water, and although that sounds pretty good, it’s “a far cry from early experiments in laboratory beakers that yielded estimates around 100,000 to 1.” Scientists believed their results might have been better if their budgets had allowed them to monitor the ocean at deeper levels and for longer periods. But even though their results were a bit disappointing, the scientists’ consensus at the 2007 conference was “that iron fertilization does in principle work well enough to squirrel away carbon for at least a few decades—possibly useful in the world’s efforts to solve its carbon emissions problem.”[6]

So, ocean iron fertilization seems to have several things going for it. For one thing, it’s simple. It requires little but knowing the best parts of the ocean to fertilize, sailing there, and then tossing the iron into the drink. For another thing, as elements go, iron is cheap. According to Stuart Sim, author of The Carbon Footprint Wars, an investment of around $100 billion in ocean iron fertilization would enable enough algae to grow to make a significant difference in atmospheric CO2.[7] And for yet another thing, unlike the various solar-radiation-management proposals discussed in earlier posts, ocean iron fertilization would combat acidification of the ocean. Before carbon dioxide ever had the chance to make the ocean acidic, our little, green algal friends would suck it right out of the air. (You go, greens!)

Are you, perchance, now waiting for the other shoe to drop? If so, you won’t be disappointed because as you anticipated, I am going to tell you why ocean iron fertilization might not be such a great idea.

But not until the next post. So please check in tomorrow (or as soon as you can) for “What You Always Wanted to Know About Geoengineering but Were Afraid to Ask, Part V.”


[1] Lovejoy, Thomas E. “Geo-Engineering Can Help Save the Planet.” New York Times. June 10, 2011.

[2] Solie, Stacey. “Scientists Adopt Tiny Island as a Warming Bellwether.” New York Times. October 6, 2012.

[3] Eilperin, Juliet. “Ocean Acidification Emerges as New Climate Threat.” Washington Post. September 30, 2012.

[4] Powell, Hugh. “Will Ocean Iron Fertilization Work?” Oceanus. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. January 7, 2008. http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=35609

[5] “Large Dose of Iron Revitalizes Lifeless Expanse of Ocean.” Associated Press. Eugene Register-Guard. October 4, 1996, p. 7B.

[6] Powell, Hugh. “Will Ocean Iron Fertilization Work?”

[7] Sim, Stuart. 2009. The Carbon Footprint Wars: What Might Happen If We Retreat From Globalization? Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, p. 106.





A brief digression for a timely announcement


My next post will almost certainly discuss some proposals for geoengineering the ocean, but, for now, I just want to alert you, in a timely way, to the news that the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that we need to start thinking about the environmental impact of our food choices.

Here’s a link to the entire report:


(In particular, see page 12 of Part D, Chapter 5: Food Sustainability and Safety.)

An article in The WashingtonPost notes that some Republicans in Congress are threatening to cut the nutrition panel’s budget. A spokesman for the Appropriations subcommittee warned: “Politically motivated issues such as . . . environmental sustainability are outside [the nutrition panel’s] purview” and that the subcommittee would “keep this in mind” when it considers funding.

Here’s a link to a Washington Post story about the report:


If you agree with the nutrition panel that taking the environmental impact of our food choices into consideration is important, please go to http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2015/comments/
and leave a comment expressing your support.

Intermission: Why Discuss Geoengineering?


We’ll return to our discussion of specific plans to geoengineer the Earth in the next post, but, before we move on, I think I should explain why knowing something about geoengineering is important.

Let me begin by noting that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists (>97%) agree that human activities are causing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and, as a result, the average temperature of the Earth is rising. What some scientists and policymakers call “Plan A” for addressing global warming is simply to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases that we emit. Unfortunately, Plan A is currently failing and shows little hope of succeeding in time to prevent a whole slew of ecological catastrophes.

For that reason, some scientists, engineers, and climate opportunists (more on this last group in a subsequent post) are coming up with schemes to engineer the planet in the hope of making the consequences of global warming less severe. They call their combined efforts “Plan B.”

At first glance, Plan B seems to be an optimistic, can-do, American-style approach that would allow us to keep living our consumerist lifestyles without having to worry about the environmental consequences. But most of the ideas that have been advanced—if not wackadoodle on their face—are rife with potentially calamitous side effects.

We all need to know what’s at stake. If we don’t put Plan A into effect by reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions, desperation could—and probably will—drive us (or the Russians or the Chinese or somebody) to employ some form of Plan B.

So please take a moment to think about whether we should help put Plan A into effect by reducing our excessive consumption or sit back complacently, allow the Earth to be geoengineered for us, and suffer the consequences down the road.

What . . . About Geoengineering . . . Part III: Volcanic Sulfur and Stratospheric Robo-Maids


In Part II of “What You Always Wanted to Know About Geoengineering but Were Afraid to Ask,” we discussed a type of solar radiation management that involves pumping a lot of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. As you might recall, the plan was inspired by a volcanic eruption, in 1991, that spewed sulfur into the stratosphere and lowered average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere by a few degrees for a couple of years. The blog ended by asking: Might the Earth’s temperature drop too much if some volcanoes suddenly belched a lot of sulfur into the stratosphere on top of the sulfur that we pumped out there, and, if so, what could we do about it?

(Well, now that we’re back up to speed, let’s get on with Part III.)

While the probability of several, sulfur-spewing volcanoes erupting all at once isn’t very high, Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards Bill McGuire argues that global warming is causing the probability to go up. (How? Why? What? . . . Huh???) Here’s how he explains it: “The world we inhabit has an outer rind that is extraordinarily sensitive to change. While the Earth’s crust may seem safe and secure, the geological calamities that happen with alarming regularity confirm that this is not the case.” We should think of “the Earth beneath our feet,” he writes, “as a slumbering giant that tosses and turns periodically in response to various pokes and prods” and be aware that environmental changes atop the Earth’s crust could arouse the sleeping giant.[1] McGuire notes that following the last ice age, “as the immense ice sheets melted and colossal volumes of water were decanted back into the oceans, the pressures acting on the solid Earth also underwent massive change. In response, the crust bounced and bent, rocking our planet with a resurgence in volcanic activity, a proliferation of seismic shocks and burgeoning giant landslides.”[2]

Now, with glaciers around the world “melting at a staggering rate,” Alaska’s permafrost thawing, sea levels rising, and the Earth’s surface beneath massive ice sheets “rebounding in response to rapid melting,” McGuire wonders if “our planet’s crust will begin to toss and turn once again.” If it does, it could “squeeze magma out of susceptible volcanoes.”[3]

Will global warming cause more volcanic activity, more landslides, avalanches, earthquakes, and tsunamis? No one can say for certain; nevertheless, for McGuire, the bottom line is clear: “[T]hrough our climate-changing activities we are loading the dice in favour of escalating geological havoc.”[4] So, before we start injecting sulfur into the stratosphere, we had better come up with a plan for what to do in case a combination of natural eruptions and artificial injections causes too much sulfur to block too much sunlight. Should we task the Pentagon to come up with plans to deploy an army of robo-maids with vacuum cleaners to suck up all the stratospheric sulfur? (Good idea? Maybe not.)

As we’ve seen, there are a number of reasons to think that spraying sulfur into the stratosphere is a bad idea. The fundamental fly in the sulfur-aerosol ointment, however, is that it merely treats a symptom, warming, instead of the cause, greenhouse-gas emissions. As a matter of fact, all of the solar-radiation-management methods—including white roofs, outer space mirrors, a Saturn-like ring around the Earth, Styrofoam icebergs and some other ideas that I haven’t bothered to mention—only address global warming. Meanwhile, greenhouse-gas emissions are brewing a sea of troubles in the ocean. (Pun and cliché intended. Sorry.) We’ll discuss those troubles in the next installment of “What You Always Wanted to Know About Geoengineering but Were Afraid to Ask.”

Thank you for reading this post. If you have time, please come back to this blog for the next one.


[1] McGuire, Bill. “Climate Change Will Shake the Earth.” Guardian. February 26, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/26/why-climate-change-shake-earth

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.