Now that we've so thoroughly messed up the planet that even the most disturbing ideas for fixing it gain attention, I'd like to comment on a few of the more recent ideas. Before I do, however, I'd like to comment on the nature of science, and scientists, in the 21st century.
First, science is based on the principle that any idea, no matter how well accepted, could be overturned tomorrow if evidence belied its accuracy. The problem begins when scientists put their ideas into action in the real world in order to create a situation that ‘proves' their idea. When, as often happens, the idea is later disproved, scientists go back to the drawing board, but the real world is inevitably altered, and rarely for the better.
I always like to use gypsy moths as an example. In the middle of the nineteenth century, an amateur lepidopterist named Leopold Trouvelot imported gypsy moths believing they could be cross-bred with silk worms to make the species hardier.
The gypsy moth escaped from Trouvelot's lab. Spraying commenced, first with Paris Green, or copper acetoarsenite (a highly toxic insecticide), and then with DDT, which put a large number of bird species at risk of extinction. It failed to eradicate the pest, and today it strips more than 1.6 million acres of forest per year, primarily beech, birch, oak and aspen. This eradication effort has cost $30 million per year over the last twenty years.
A newer example would be the activities of the German research vessel Polarstern, which - under the auspices of German and Indian scientists - dumped 20 tonnes of iron sulfate in the Southwest Atlantic. This program, known as LOHAFEX (Loha is the Hindi word for iron, and FEX stands for fertilization), is supported by the German science ministry, which argues that the parameters agree with environmental standards and international law.
Iron sulfate is known to encourage algae blooms. Algae absorb carbon dioxide, or CO2, and naturally sequester it when they die and sink to the ocean floor. The results are likely to be lackluster. The Polarstern will stay in the area for six weeks to give scientists aboard the opportunity to observe the growth and decay of an artificially-induced bloom and measure the amount of CO2 withdrawn.
Previous studies, in 2004 and 2005 near Crozet archipelago, showed that adding iron to oceans results in 77-percent less carbon sequestered than does a natural bloom. More important, carbon density at 3,000 meters (where carbon is locked away for centuries) was just 3 percent of that recorded at 100 meters.
According to a recent paper published in the science journal Nature (subscription only), the Crozet experiment fell 15 to 20 times short of geoengineering estimates, which had touted the effectiveness of the iron fertilization technology. It's highly likely LOHAFEX will do the same, unless the numbers can be tortured into confessing what the scientists on board the Polarstern choose to believe.
Scientists aboard the Polarstern also want to study the effect of iron fertilization on zooplankton like krill, the main food source of Antarctic penguins. Krill have declined by 80 percent over the past few decades. Hopefully, the LOHAFEX experiment will not lead to further depletion, but that's as likely an outcome as anything.
As if the LOHAFEX experiment wasn't enough of a reach, along comes another geoengineering proposal; sequester carbon dioxide by dumping crop waste into the ocean.
The first thing that comes to my mind is all the tons of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used on crops around the world. How can this possibly help our oceans, which are already so polluted and acidic nothing but jellyfish are thriving?
The proposal, coming in the form of a paper published by Stuart Strand, a University of Washington research professor, appeared recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (published by the American Chemical Society). Strand happily suggests that sinking 30 percent of the world's crop residues (representing 600 megatons of carbon) in 1,500 feet of water in the world's oceans would reduce world carbon dioxide output from 4,000 megatons to 3,400 megatons, or a 15-percent decrease.
The method, Strand says, is more successful in sequestering carbon than any other process, including leaving it in fields or using it for ethanol, which is only 32-percent efficient. The 15-percent figure takes into account carbon transfer during harvest and transportation, Strand asserts, and the technology achieves a 92-percent efficiency rating.
Because deep ocean waters don't mix with surface currents, the sequestration is assured, and the colder water at that depth prevents decay of the organic matter. Additionally, if the waste is dumped near alluvial fans off the continental shelves, the waste would eventually be buried by silt from the rivers that flow into said oceans.
Unfortunately, neither Strand nor co-author Gregory Benford, have said anything about the escape of toxic chemicals the world's farmers use every day to encourage growth, deter pests and prevent weeds - chemicals that can't possibly be beneficial to oceans struggling to maintain fragile ecospheres in the face of man's continuing depredations.
Strand and Benford, physics professor at the University of California, Irvine, insist this is a good idea. I call BS.