REDUCING CARBON EMISSIONS IS NOT ENOUGH
The September 2006 Scientific American (www.sciam.com) issue was dedicated to the topic of reducing release of carbon dioxide for energy purposes. The model of such reductions, identifying “wedges” of carbon savings from conservation, nuclear, hydrogen, etc. includes carbon sequestration from powerplants. This all makes sense and provides a solid framework to bring carbon emissions under control, as I point out in a posting on the issue.
However, it may not be enough. All indicators are that even if no additional carbon was released into the atmosphere, temperatures would still increase for the next 50 years or so. And, unfortunately and stupidly, it may take 10 years for government policies and the American will to make significant progress on cutting back our carbon emissions. As many scientists have noted, the tipping point for massive climate change may already have been passed, or at least is eminent. A silver bullet is needed, and may be desperately, vitally needed within the next 10 years.
CONSUMING ATMOSPHERIC CARBON
If we can’t or won’t dramatically reduce our production of atmospheric carbon, can we dramatically increase the natural elemnts that consume CO2? While forests do consume CO2, we are fairly rapidly cutting them down, rather than planting more (and they take decades to mature). The cost of planting acres of forests gets to be impractical when millions of acres are needed, which must come from other uses, such as agriculture. All estimates are that little significant impact can be made through the most agressive forestation program. Just slowing down the rainforest decimation would be a good start, and so far, that’s not really happening.
Is there anything that could possibly completely solve the atmospheric carbon problem in a relatively short timeframe? That is, is there any candidate for a “silver bullet”?
THE IRON HYPOTHESIS
The answer is yes, there is a candidate: ocean iron fertilization. It turns out that there are large areas of the world’s southern oceans that are iron-poor. Iron is a critical nutrient to phytoplankton (algae), and in these areas, fertilizing the ocean with some iron results in increased phytoplankton growth immediately. These little buggers consume tons of atmospheric CO2, so a little bit of iron would seem to cause consumption of as much CO2 as many thousands of acres of mature forests. This is called “The Iron Hypothesis” and was first put forth by John Martin, a former director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and the effect has been proven.
The oceans are so vast, and so little iron is needed to cause lots of phytoplankon to grow and consume lots of CO2 that Martin once famously said, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” The question is, can we responsibly get the right amount of CO2 consumption to counteract the doubling of CO2 in the air by manmade sources.
Please notice I said “candidate”. As you can guess, the approach is not without controversy. Dumping iron in the oceans? What are the ecological impacts? Well, phytoplankton is the bottom rung on the food chain, so it is possible/probable that there is a side benefit of a more robust ocean ecology in general. Its possible there are profound negative effects. Too much of the wrong type of algea and you might get a nasty bloom. Maybe the carbon would eventually recycle to the atmosphere. We don’t know — and that is my point.
RESEARCH, NOW PLEASE
We had better find out, and soon. Planktos at www.planktos.com is offering a program for “Carbon Remediation through Creative Eco-Restoration”, so commercialization has begun, which is not a bad thing on a limited scale. Moreover, Planktos is emphasizing RESEARCH. If the carbon credit trading markets take off, it would not take much for iron seeding to have its own bloom- its very cost-effective. I just like verification before engaging in planetary-scale climate manipulation.
Besides requiring coal burners to snuff their carbon belching, seeding our oceans may be one of the only truly effective options that we have to balance the carbon in the atmosphere. Come a few decades and a few feet of higher oceans, somebody (like us) may be desperate enough to blindly dump iron in the ocean like crazy. We need solid research on moderate scale ocean iron seeding to understand the do’s and don’ts. Done wrong, the potential downsides could be as significant as the upsides.
A billion spent on RESEARCHING this potential solution might just safely stave off a massive climate change worldwide.
So, along with driving less, buying a hybrid, and doing what you can to reduce your own carbon emissions, contact your congresspersons and urge them to invest in researching a real potential silver bullet to climate change
US Dept. of Energy: Ocean Carbon Sequestration Abstracts http://cdiac2.esd.ornl.gov/ocean.html
John Martin and the Iron Hypothesis: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Giants/Martin/martin_4.html
Summary of Moss Landing research: http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/002056.html
[more reference to come]