Jan 8, 2009

Science - Tossing iron powder into ocean to fight global warming

Amit Bhattacharya

NEW DELHI: Can tossing tonnes of iron powder into the ocean help the world fight global warming? A team of Indian scientists, along with their
counterparts from Germany and elsewhere, is embarking on an ambitious 70-day ocean expedition on Wednesday to find answers to that question.

Twenty-nine scientists from India, eleven from Germany and ten others will board German research vessel, Polarstern, in Cape Town and head to the experiment site in southwest Atlantic near Antartica. They will stay in the cold and notoriously stormy waters for nearly two months to test a controversial hypothesis that, experts say, has the potential to clean up as much as 1 billion tonne (1 Gt) of CO2 from the atmosphere every year and store it below the ocean for centuries.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for global warming. According to current estimates, world emits 7 Gt of carbon into the air every year.

"We hope to have a deeper understanding of the technique than previous researches,'' S W A Naqvi of National Institute of Oceanography, who is the chief Indian scientist for the expedition, told TOI on email from Cape Town.

The experiment, called LOHAFEX loha for iron and FEX for fertilization experiment will test the efficacy of a technique that could not only become the most important way to dispose of CO2, but which also has millions riding on it by way of carbon credits. At least two US companies hope to profit from ‘ocean iron fertilization’ (OIF), as the method is called, by selling credits.

During the $2 million experiment, scientists will throw 20 tonnes of dissolved iron sulphate in 300 sq km of ocean. The iron is expected to stimulate a rapid blooming of phytoplankton, a microscopic algae that grows on the ocean surface.

Like all plants, phytoplankton takes up CO2 from air and converts it to carbon compounds like carbohydrates. The plant quickly dies and starts sinking, taking the carbon with it. What happens thereafter is the key to the technique's efficacy: If it sinks well below the ocean surface, the carbon would effectively have been put away for a long period.

The nutrient-rich but iron-deficient southern ocean is seen as an ideal site for OIF. The area is spread across 50 million sq km 15 times the size of India. The math done by scientists show that if the entire southern ocean were fertilized by iron and a sizeable fraction of the phytoplankton sank well below 1,000m, then about 1 Gt of carbon would be isolated for centuries. Water at depths below 500m takes about 100 years to come to the surface.

The scientists say the carbon footprint - additional carbon emitted by the technique - would be minor as compared with the gains.

For seven weeks, LOHAFEX's team of physicists, chemists, biologists and geochemists will study the effects of the algal bloom on the exchange of CO2 between ocean and atmosphere as well as on the oceanic food chain and the organisms of the underlying sea floor.

As Prof Naqvi put it, "The core issue the fate of organic matter produced due to iron fertilization is still not settled. It is not clear whether this material gets recycled in the near-surface layer (which would make OIF not very useful) or a substantial fraction of it gets transported to the deep sea (which will make OIF a useful technique to isolate CO2). LOHAFEX is better equipped to track the fate of this carbon than previous researches.''

The researchers will also study krill, a shrimp-like animal which feeds on phytoplankton and is the main food of Antarctic penguins, seals and whales. Krill stocks have declined by over 80% in past decades and their response to the iron-fertilized bloom could give clues to help in recovery of the decimated great whale populations as well.

"India hasn't carried out such an experiment in the ocean so far. It requires a high level of expertise not found elsewhere in the Third World. So, apart from the scientific gains, the experiment itself should enhance our prestige. Significantly, more than half the Indian participants are students (from NIO),'' Naqvi said.

But OIF remains controversial, with many environmentalists saying it amounts to major tinkering with the marine eco-system. If done on the scales proposed in the future, it could have unforeseen consequences, they warn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Southern Ocean Whales Bid Fair Winds And Following Seas To The Crew Of PolarStern

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish From The Restored Ocean Pasture

The flagship German research vessel of the European Union and her science crew of 50 scientists from Germany, India, and around the world departed from their Southern Ocean pasture a day or so ago. The ship and her dedicated scientists had prescribed and on January 27th administered 10 tonnes of iron to a several hundred sq. kilometer patch of ocean. The iron was just the tonic the ocean needed and within days a verdant ocean pasture began to bloom. Ocean satellites picked up an image of the bloom on Valentines Day, what better gift for Mother Earth, than her ocean restored and growing nutritious plankton for every form of sea life from tiny krill to the great whales and everything in between fish, penguins, seals, and seabirds.

Which of these blooms is not like the other?
Image source http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov/

The project, years in planning, had run into a brief tempest and delays whipped up by the spin of dark green organizations as it was about to begin. Claims that the work would be in violation of some mysterious laws, were quickly proven to be false. Those spinning the claims were the same dark greens who in many statements have declared that they are against mitigation of climate changing CO2 that involves the production of carbon offset credits. As EU president Vaclav Klaus stated earlier this week, “Environmentalists are less concerned about any crisis posed by global warming than they are eager to command human behavior and restrict economic activity.” The EU president has that right even though his skepticism on the topic of global warming, wrought by the obvious casting of the topic as a political fodder by the dark greens, is ill advised. He’s hardly alone in his choosing to oppose the idea of climate change when faced with such obvious politicization of the important topic. More intelligent and caring leaders prevailed in Germany reversing a nefarious order by German environment minister that threatened to stop the project as the ship arrived in mid January in the Southern Ocean.

Ocean replenishment and restoration as proven possible by this experiment might remove seven times as much CO2 from the air as the Kyoto Protocol calls for. The oceans pastures have been decimated by high CO2 resulting in billions of tonnes of lost plant life in just a few decades. Replenishing the mineral micro-nutrients, esp. iron, can restore those pastures and turn billions of tonnes of CO2 into ocean life instead of acidifying ocean death.

Here at Planktos Science we are tickled green that the LohaFex ocean replenishment and restoration project has gone so well. The tonnes of iron replenished are now growing what will be millions of tonnes of plankton biomass which in turn will produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of krill and other zooplankton. The next step on that food chain are the baby calves of the Southern Ocean Great Whales as the new pasture is within their traditional nursery. The food chain formula tells us to expect tens of thousands of tonnes of whales being nourished from this wonderful gesture led by Chief Scientists Victor Smetacek and Wajih Naqvi, our most heartfelt thanks to you both. For more information on ocean replenishment and restoration visit www.planktos-science.com