Archive for the ‘Ocean Carbon Cycle Research’ 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.