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Sunday, January 11, 2009

U.N. Says 'No,' Climate Hackers Say, 'Yes We Can'

By Alexis Madrigal

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This story has been updated.

A major Indian-German geoengineering expedition set sail this week for the Scotia Sea, flouting a U.N. ban on ocean iron fertilization experiments in hopes of garnering data about whether the process actually does take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the deep ocean, a technique that may help reverse global warming.

The LOHAFEX experiment will spread 20-tons of iron sulphate particles over a 115-square-mile section of open ocean north of Antarctica — that's about 1.7 times the size of Washington, D.C. The initiative has drawn fire from environmental groups who point out that 200 countries agreed to the moratorium until more evidence was available about its efficacy.

But that hasn't stopped the LOHAFEX team, composed of Alfred Wegener Institute and Indian National Institute of Oceanography scientists, who say they need to conduct experiments to get such data.

“If the LOHAFEX iron dump goes ahead, it will be a clear defiance of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity,” Jim Thomas of ETC Group, said in a press release.

It's becoming clear that when it comes to global warming reversal schemes, deciding who will control the global thermostat is as complex an issue as how such schemes could actually be accomplished. Ocean iron fertilization is considered one of the more promising options for global-scale geoengineering, which aims to slow or reverse the effects of climate change caused by man's burning of fossil fuels.

While Thomas expressed outrage, Jamais Cascio, a futurist who has written about the geopolitical repercussions of geoengineering for the journal Foreign Policy, took a more measured tone.

"ETC is right that we need international standards and safeguards for these experiments, and hopefully this attempt will spur action in that regard," Cascio said. "I think they're wrong, however, to suggest that any look at geoengineering is inherently problematic."

Importantly, iron fertilization would deal directly with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, as opposed to, say, blocking out some of the sun's rays with a global molecular parasol.

By providing plankton with iron in water where iron is lacking, the marine creatures grow in tremendous numbers, incorporating carbon into their bodies. When the plankton die and sink, the carbon goes with down with their skeletons. It is unknown, however, how much of that carbon actually makes it deep into the ocean, where it would be sequestered for decades, not days.

At a panel at meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, marine geochemist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute said that somewhere between 2 and 50 percent of the carbon the plankton eat could actually make it to the depths of the ocean, which is basically like saying that we don't know if the process works.

"The efficacy of iron-induced sequestration of atmospheric CO2 to the deep sea, however, remains poorly constrained," he summarized. "We do not yet understand the full range of intended and potential unintended biogeochemical and ecological impacts."

The voluntary U.N. ban included language to allow countries to do tests near their shores. But it's the open seas, particularly in the southern hemisphere, that would allow in-situ testing of the LOHAFEX scientists' hypotheses.

"The fate of carbon from the bloom could not be adequately determined in earlier experiments," the LOHAFEX website reads. "LOHAFEX will now study the entire range of processes determining the partitioning of carbon between atmosphere and deep ocean in the experimental bloom."

Cascio said that it's likely that further geoengineering experiments or actual efforts will be made.

"This comes as absolutely no surprise to me," he said. "The confluence of desperation as we see climate disruption hit faster than anticipated, inaction on the carbon emission front, and the ease with which geoengineering can be undertaken means that this won't be the last time that a sub-national group tries something like this."

Already, two ocean-iron-fertilization companies, Climos and Planktos, have been founded. They've met different fates, though. Last year, Planktos went belly up, while Climos pulled in $4 million in venture capital.

Original here

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