Archive for the ‘climate change’ Category

Comment on the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force: Missing Research on the Ocean Carbon Cycle

September 29, 2009

The Interim report from the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force has been released and is open to comments at  I submitted the following comment:

“Yes, and OCC!  Fully agree with the entire report — it’s a great  holistic and science-based approach to dealing with the ocean. Yet something important is missing: Bold, responsible action to attack the cause of climate change: Research on the Ocean Carbon Cycle.   The report ignores the fact that the oceans are integral with the atmosphere and its higher carbon.

These are not normal times, and while the report recognizes that carbon-induced climate change profoundly affects the oceans and all aspects of our environment, it does not address the role that oceans have in planetary carbon.   By analogy, if the ocean was a human body, and dehydration was the problem, then the report focuses on how to deal with the lack of water. It is not recognizing that drinking more water could solve the source of the problem.  If the oceans can safely consume more carbon, then, perhaps, the planet can heal the root of the problem: atmospheric carbon.  We need to find out soon and ever so comprehensively and carefully.

While the report recognizes the problems climate change induces, it takes a reactive, passive, and band-aid approach to higher atmospheric carbon and climate change, to alleviate symptoms, not address the root problem of higher CO2.   Rather than just strengthen the ability to adapt to acidification, we should also strongly prioritize and aggressively research (in a stepwise, precautionary manner) the Ocean Carbon Cycle needed to gain the knowledge needed to possibly counter or even reverse high atmospheric carbon, and the resulting acidification.  “Restoration” gets closer, but does not call for bold prudent action.

Carbon-induced climate change is a cascading train wreck in progress. It is not “Precautionary” to fail to do research  that provides knowledge useful to avoid a train wreck. We have become good gardeners of the earth and, in large part, understand how to avoid big problems (economic drivers of deforestation notwithstanding). We view reforestation as a good thing, but have not started the due diligence for a parallel in the seas. We need to be good stewards of the oceans, start the proactive and precautionary research to see if the oceans can drink in more carbon to avoid the train wreck in progress.

The last line of Area of Special Emphasis #1 (Climate Change) reads as follows:

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to develop strategies for reducing the vulnerability, increasing the resilience, and improving adaptation of human and natural systems to climate change impacts.”

 What’s missing is:

We also have an opportunity and a responsibility to research the oceans’ capabilities of and sensitivities to restoring and expanding its natural role in consuming atmospheric carbon, reducing the imbalance causing climate change.

Suggested addition to the Report:

 Areas of Special Emphasis

                        6. Immediate prioritization of Proactive and Precautionary Research  on  the Ocean Carbon Cycle.  Robust Understanding of Ocean ecological processes relevant to higher atmospheric Carbon, Climate Change and Ocean Acidification: To radically strengthen knowledge of marine environments carbon interactions, sensitivities and their abilities to safely counter high atmospheric carbon, climate change and ocean acidification.

Obstacles and Opportunities

Beyond Emphasis area #1, adapting to and being resilient to climate change and acidification, bold action is called for in the form of National and Global Call for Research on the Ocean Carbon Cycle. Oceans consume roughly half of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and with evidence of phytoplankton population decreases, this cascade effect calls for immediate research. A prudent, due diligence investigation is needed to guide restoration, and evaluate enhancement efforts. Establish a national and global priority, on par with carbon-free energy production, on par with President Kennedy’s moonshot program. 

Oceanic research has not ranked high in the fight against climate change, but is now recognized as key to understanding planetary carbon. Lack of knowledge should not prevent needed research, as long as the Precautionary Principle is held as a firm guide to ethical and responsible stepwise research. Neither should this call for research be met with complacency, as diligent conservation and carbon-free energy and economies are clearly necessary.

The Plan Should Address:

  • NOAA:  Coordinate Research, observations and modeling of carbon flows in marine environments with a 10 to 20 year horizon to achieve high confidence understanding of relevant ecological and planetary dynamics.  
  • Unprecedented high prioritization of stepwise, conservative micro-, longitudinal- and, if indicated, larger-scope studies of  full carbon cycle processes, including phytoplankton enhancement and longterm sequestration evaluation.  This amount to holistic marine ecology research.
  •  Leadership and coordination with all members of the global community regarding research in the Commons; Confirm research ethical guidelines consistent with the Precautionary Principle.
  • Prioritize earth and ocean observations for NASA;  Recommendation to redirect manned space exploration programs into preparatory modes for 10 to 20 years. Radically increase robotic oceanic monitoring. Use Navy surface and submarine fleet when consistent with military objectives.
  • Expansion of marine biology and ocean chemistry and dynamics education. Radical expansion of university marine research programs.  Include the oceans’ role in atmospheric carbon in public education efforts.
  •  Evaluation of the historic record of volcanic iron releases, CO2 levels and ocean ecologies”
  •  [Not included: Development of policy discussion for global consensus and treaties using a precautionary basis for ocean programs to counter atmospheric carbon.]

Text of In-person Public Comment to the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force

September 28, 2009

The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force met in San Francisco on Sept. 17, 2009.   I gave them my 2 cents minutes worth, along with the few hundred others there. The video is at: Time index: 1:56:25

 “Thank you. I’m so glad that Obama has started your work, and I’m tasking you with following through on his promise for science-based policies.

Science has shown us that climate change is the biggest issue that we have. 350 is where we need to be, we are at 390 parts per million, and its going up.  You know what is happening to the oceans: acidification and decreasing phytoplankton populations.  That’s a cascade effect right there.  Half of our CO2 is consumed by the oceans.

So I am charging you with right now with a Manhattan-, an Apollo-type research program on the Ocean Carbon Cycle.

My daughter is here because the nurse couldn’t make it, but for all the generations that follow, green energy isn’t enough. There is too much CO2. We have to sequester it, and the oceans hold that potential – we know that.  We don’t know if it is safe. We don’t know if it is effective. So we need the research now, started now, so that in 10 or 20 years we’ll know what’s going on.  We will have done the microstudies. We will have done the longitudinal studies. And when Japan or China decides, ‘Whoa, we can dump iron, and reduce the carbon”, we’ll know what to do.  You will have a Foreign Policy issue, you will have a National Security issue, if they make that decision.

So let’s do the science now. Let’s redirect NASA – ok? Space is a great way to study the oceans.  NOAA, this is front and center.  I think billions and billions of money ought to be spent on it right now.  And its environmental studies, its ecological studies, that every environmentalist should want to have, to understand the Ocean Carbon Cycle as soon as possible.

 Thank you.”

Comment to The Ocean Policy Task Force: Research the Ocean Carbon Cycle

September 28, 2009

[The entry below is an expanded version of my comment to the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force.  For the actual comment, please see  I note that only about a dozen of the 750 comments include the word “carbon” (!).  The Ocean Project comment is enlightening too.]

To the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force,

 As an introduction, please refer to my 1/23/09 letter to Ms. Sutley (see my blog entry).  She replied that “…we will take your concerns into account as we work to fulfill this mission.”.  Now, you have a mission, and I ask you to sound a loud and clear alarm, and call for an unprecedented high level of ocean carbon-cycle research to save the oceans and our planet, before it is too late.

Here is a clear test of  President Obama’s science-based policies policy. Science has shown us the possibility of an ocean-equivalent to reforestation, now science is needed to see if it can be a real safe and effective approach.  Just maybe, “Save the algae, save the planet.”  We need to find out.

Carbon-Cycle Research as a Policy

Clearly, you have to consider are a very broad range of policy issues. Under the category of “Emerging Issues”, climate change is the elephant in the room.  I am asking you to push that issue, as an ocean policy issue requiring massive research, to the front burner of national and global policies, because, fundamentally, research has shown a viable possibility that the oceans hold the key to blunting, stopping or even reversing CO2 buildup that is causing (potentially profound) climate and ocean change.  There is evidence as well that not doing research condemns the oceans to destructive acidification and starvation as coral reefs and phytoplankton populations are reduced.

I should not need to emphasize the importance of preventing climate change, as the severity of droughts, floods, hurricanes, famines, and underwater coastal cities are all great risks to our prosperity.  You can add ocean impacts to that as well. If we truly value this planet, and truly own our responsibility to leave it to future generations in some semblance of the shape that we received it, then our top priority must be to clean up the mess that we have made.

We do not really know if ocean fertilization is safe or effective in reducing atmospheric carbon, and that is the problem. We do not know to what extent the oceans can safely sequester. We owe it to ourselves and generations that follow to do our best to find out in a careful, safety-first program.  Therefore this letter is a proposition that a primary ocean policy should be a massive, “moon-shot” level, comprehensive, longitudinal (longterm) and responsible research program on the ocean carbon-cycle.  We need to bring our best and brightest to bear on our planetary crisis: we need universities and NASA to focus on our earth for a decade or two. Mars will always be there (see my letter to the Planetary Society, below).

Maybe the oceans can only reduce CO2 by 10%, but maybe that 10% is what we need to buy time to avoid cascading changes, such as polar ice cap retreats or methane clathrate releasesFundamentally, we don’t know where the tipping point is, nor how far the planet will tip. That is a powerful reason to now apply resources to see if we can buy some critical time to allow our economies to reduce carbon emissions.


“Geoengineering” is on the upswing in attention and controversy. Many take a bandaid approachand attack the symptom of higher atmospheric CO2 by reducing solar influx with mirrors or high-altitude particulates.  These approaches ignore the other effects of higher CO2, like ocean acidification. All of the atmospheric CO2-reducing proposals (that I have seen) are impractically expensive; we cannot even get affordable sequestration at point sources like coal plants.

Even the thought of combining the words “geo-engineering” and “oceans” is scary enough to some people, scientists included, to avoid even discussing the topic. Admittedly, our track record is mixed.  We cannot afford to “screw up” the oceans.

The fact is that humans are geo-engineering the climate by putting a trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, by changing the landscape, by impacting ecologies everywhere. Where most would not hesitate to recommend reforestation as much as possible, talking about purposefully manipulating the oceans tends to cause a reflex denial.  It is perhaps understandable, in that the oceans are so unknown and acknowledged as vital to all life. 

My point is that that lack of  knowledge is the problem, and we can and should be good enough stewards of the oceans to find out what we need to know – just as we have become good gardeners of the earth.  Now we have a driving need to acquire that knowledge as fast as possible.


It is not a relevant argument to say that relying upon the oceans to save us from our polluting ways is bad policy. Of course it is.  I’m not advocating relenting in any way on green energy and conservation. Not researching an approach because some people might become complacent is an issue about the people, not the approach.  The approach has to be part of a comprehensive solution.  Clearly, an ocean approach will only buy us some time – we still have to become carbon-neutral.


Please consider these questions:

  1. Do you acknowledge that atmospheric CO2 levels are far above historic levels?
  2.  Do you believe that the global economy returning to 1970 CO2 levels or even becoming totally carbon neutral (in X years time) will prevent profound climate change without significant negative effects?
  3.  Do you acknowledge that the oceans consume roughly 50% of atmospheric CO2?
  4.  Do you acknowledge there is evidence of phytoplankton populations being reduced, attributable to climate change?
  5.  Do you acknowledge that roughly a third of oceans have reduced phytoplankton populations, which may be stimulated with micronutrients?
  6.  Do you believe that a large, responsibly administered research program can determine the effectiveness and safety of ocean fertilization methods?
  7.  If you believe that reforestation is a legitimate means of terrestrial CO2 sequestration, are you open to appropriate comprehensive research to consider fertilizing phytoplankton as an ocean-based parallel?
  8.  What would you tell your grandchildren if we don’t throughly research the ocean carbon-cycle, and we could have?

Policy Suggestions

Here are my meager policy suggestions in layman terms:

  1. Need: Be clear that reducing our rate of carbon pollution is necessary, but it not sufficient to prevent climate change.
  2. Relevance: Identify that oceans are a key to atmospheric carbon and climate change.
  3. Knowledge Gap: Acknowledge that there is much to be learned about the ocean carbon-cycle.
  4. Research: Make learning about the ocean carbon-cycle, comprehensively and thoroughly, a national (and global) priority with a 10 or 20-year horizon.
  5. Stewardship: Emphasize the importance of protecting the oceans and research proceeding in a highly responsible, ethical stepwise manner, in concert with other countries.
  6. Prioritization: Resolve to apply all relevant resources, including NASA, to ocean research. Suggest a starting budget of a billion dollars. Encourage university programs and students to expand ocean programs.
  7. Prudent Vigilance/Non-complacency: Be clear that this program is a due diligence investigation to explore protection  and enhancement of the oceans and possible mitigation of CO2 pollution. There are no assurances that any significant CO2 sequestration will be possible, therefore nobody should rely the oceans to solve climate change, and the priority of non-carbon energy sources and conservation should remain vital.

Letter To the The Planetary Society, Sent July 29, 2009: Go To Mars, But Save the Earth First

September 10, 2009

Letter To the The Planetary Society, Sent July 29, 2009

 To the The Planetary Society staff and Board,

 I’m a space nut, and am all for any and all kinds of space exporation.  The Planetary Society has been doing a great job.

 My perspective has tweaked a little recently. Underlined by Jani Radebaugh’s 7/28/09 blog entry, the Earth is a planet too, and I put forth to the Society that the priority should be to solve the planetary crisis at hand.  Especially the one we live on.

 I cannot support a goal of putting humans back on the moon or onto Mars unless we have done everything possible to prevent our planet from becoming substantially warmer for our children and the generations that follow.  100% carbon-free energy is a great goal, and it is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient. With the elevated CO2 in the air, the earth will warm for centuries, unless active planetary-scale measures (read geo-engineering) are made to remove CO2, or in the worst case, reduce effective solar energy.

 Since the oceans consume about 50% of the CO2 in the air and 40% of oceans have poor phytoplankon populations, the most important research we can do for future generations is massive ocean carbon-cycle research. While it is well known that adding micronutrients, such as iron, to the southern oceans causes massive phytoplankon blooms, and corresponding consumption of C02, there is much that we don’t know about the effects of such fertilization.  Understanding relevant ocean processes should be our national and global priority along with green energy.  Space is an ideal platform from which to observe the millions of square miles of our oceans.

 If we truly value this planet, and truly own our responsibility to leave it to future generations in some semblance of the shape that we received it, then our top priority must be to clean up the mess that wehave made.   The Moon and Mars will always be there, and in the course of history, a delay of 10 to 20 years to get to those bodies is insignificant compared to the centuries that the Earth will be hot.  I will have a hard time explaining to my grandchildren why we focused on sending a few people to another planet when billions are impacted or devastated  by droughts, famines, hurricanes and underwater coastal cities.

 Repurpose NASA for a decade or two. Continue robotic missions, continue research on propulsion and long-term space travel, but make the next “moonshot program” about the earth, its oceans and its atmosphere.   I challenge The Planetary Society to take up this debate. You can put this on the national and global agenda.  Do you, do we have the guts to stand up and say, we need to focus now on our planetary crisis at hand.


 – Rand Wrobel

Letter to the Chair-Designate of the CEQ, Jan 23rd, 2009: Call for Ocean Research

September 10, 2009

Letter to Ms. Sutley Jan 23rd, 2009:

 Dear Ms. Sutley,

 Congratulations for being chosen to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Like many, we are relieved that Mr. Obama has chosen real environmental leaders to guide the nation, and the world.

 I’m a concerned citizen, writing to highlight an aspect of climate change that is not discussed in the media and by virtually all environmental/anti-climate change groups, which, upon your consideration, you may also find of the highest importance. The current focus to stop climate change is alternative energy.  I absolutely agree, and yet my point is that “green energy” is necessary, but is not sufficient to stop climate change. Something more is needed, and I hope you recognize and action this need.

 What nobody says is that even if we did everything proposed today, even if we became totally carbon neutral today, the earth would continue to warm for centuries (albeit not as quickly) because of the (drastically) elevated levels of CO2 already in the air.  All the actions and carbon offsets in play today should be labeled, “We can mitigate global warming”. Even massive reforestation appears to be wholly insufficient, requiring 20 years to mature. Such mitigation may not prevent reaching the tipping point.  We need something soon to lower CO2 levels (not just emissions) to avoid the cascade effects anticipated — something to avoid the droughts, famines, hurricanes and underwater coastal cities that our children and generations that follow will most probably face.

We need research, not just on alternative energy, but on practical means of removing/sequestering atmospheric CO2, especially by the oceans. While most “geoengineering” proposals are wholly impractical, the oceans consume half of the atmospheric CO2, and they may be able to consume a lot more.   As it is, oceans are losing phytoplankton because of warming, increased acidity, and may be consuming even less CO2 ; there is NASA research to this point: (2003:

 It is proven that fertilizing the southern oceans with microscopic amounts of iron allows phytoplankton to grow significantly, consuming profound amounts of CO2. It is called, the iron effect or iron hypothesis. The discoverer, oceanographer John Martin famously told his colleagues, “Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age.” 

 To clarify, I am not a proponent of massive ocean fertilization.  I am a strong proponent of massive research on the ocean carbon cycle, including such fertilization, as the lead (only?) candidate for effectively reducing atmospheric carbon. IMHO, ocean carbon-cycle research is the most important research we can do to actually ‘stop global warming’ for generations to follow.   Representative Stark of CA has said that  “Congress should support further research before deciding if iron fertilization is part of the long term solution”.  There is extremely limited research currently.

 We need our research dollars focused on the planetary problem at hand… Even as a science nut, I would vote to repurpose NASA from another moonshot and focus for awhile on a mission closer to home: research our oceans (satellites can play a big part). The missing element is a ‘Call for Ocean Research’. A billion dollars may be a cheap prices to see if the oceans can help prevent global warming and handing a changed planet to our children.   It is potentially the only practical way to STOP global warming. Please see my blog ( ) for more information. 

 While the government has in the past funded small-scale (<~400 sq. mi) research (SOFeX (, etc.) through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), I would contend a vital priority is to launch extremely thorough (longitudnal) medium-scale field studies in terms of thousands of square miles of seeding. This scale is still a tiny percentage (.0001%) of the nearly 40 million square miles of ocean where seeding is thought to be able to have an effect (20-40% of all oceans, ref: .)

 There is plenty on information on the web, and you will find some researchers and environmentalists steadfastly opposed to even researching the idea.  Those that say it is not effective should admit that much is not known. I humbly propose that we responsibly, carefully and thoroughly answer the ‘safe and effective’ questions before ruling out a possible practical way to actually prevent the climate from changing.

 Personally, I am concerned that climate change may accelerate faster than most think, and that, facing a crisis, some country will seize upon iron fertilization as ‘the solution’ and start dumping iron into the oceans without the research and understanding to do it without ecological damage. If that country is China or Japan, we may have a larger conflict.  If we start serious research now, in future years we will know a great deal more.

 If you acknowledge the vital importance to find out if ocean seeding (or other oceanic approaches) can be safe and effective, how do get this into the national and global agenda and launch this moonshot?  Perhaps the Committee on Ocean Policy is an appropriate place to start?  I would appreciate a continued dialog on this topic, though I’m sure you are extremely busy, to say the least.

Thanks for your consideration,

 – Rand Wrobel

Alameda, CA

USA Today: Oceans could provide turning point in global warming

September 10, 2009

The following was published in USA TODAY Letters to the Editor on Apr 9, 2007. 
 Refer to:

Oceans could provide turning point in global warming
Rand Wrobel – Alameda, Calif.
USA TODAY’s article “Project aims to ‘seed’ oceans to heal them,” highlights scientific research that could someday be considered a turning point in the battle against global warming (Life, Tuesday).
But though the iron seeding approach could be the silver bullet to reverse warming in our lifetime, it must be aimed carefully.

Even if we cut carbon emissions to 1970 levels, or become totally carbon-neutral, the Earth will continue to warm for centuries because of the carbon dioxide already here. Some scientists believe that all the conservation and alternate energy efforts won’t change that. They believe the efforts just reduce further buildup. We are condemning generations to droughts, famines, hurricanes, underwater coastal cities, ruined economies and ravaged ecologies.

Restoring our ocean’s natural ability to consume carbon dioxide with iron seeding is an approach that could potentially suck enough of the carbon dioxide out of the air and give us a reset.

The research on this approach is the most important research our generation can do — our “moonshot.” Maybe it won’t be safe and effective, but we won’t know unless we study it to the extreme. Potentially, “save the algae, save the world.”

The (Possible) Silver Bullet for Global Warming: A Call for Research into Ocean Iron Fertilization

September 20, 2006


The September 2006 Scientific American ( 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.


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 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. 


We had better find out, and soon.  Planktos at 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

John Martin and the Iron Hypothesis:

Summary of Moss Landing research:

[more reference to come]