Ocean Seeding: The Good, The Bad, The Moratorium

When the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity voted in May to put an indefinite moratorium on ocean seeding many were shocked at how quickly the promising climate correction theory had fallen. Others were relieved that a potential monster had been locked back in its cage and still others wondered: What in the World is Ocean Seeding?

Ocean seeding was proposed by oceanographer John Martin in the 1980's.  His hypothesis was that populations of phytoplankton could be encouraged to "bloom" (a.k.a. grow in high densities) by pouring large quantities of iron in areas of the ocean lacking high concentrations of the organism. The phytoplankton would then trap CO2 during their normal metabolic processes.  If the phytoplankton consume the CO2 and then sink to 500 meters, then the carbon could be sequestered for hundreds of years.  If it sinks below 1000 meters it could rest undisturbed for millennia.

Proponents of ocean seeding point out that in the last 25 years the level of phytoplankton in the ocean fell by 6%.  Because phytoplankton absorb about half the planets CO2 a year, or 50 billion tons, a continued decrease in the population would be catastrophic.  Also ocean water that contains higher concentrations of algae would reflect more sunlight limiting the warming of oceans from light absorption.

Critics believe that more research is required before any nutrient is dumped into the ocean in large amounts.  Data suggests that not enough CO2 is sequestered to warrant the expense of such a procedure as phytoplankton can be eaten by predators like zooplankton, krill, and small fish at the surface of the ocean. To back up the U.N.'s moratorium decision research has recently shown the potential for much more deadly side effects to iron dumping. Scientist Mary Silver of the University of California Santa Cruz has found evidence that iron encourages the growth of some algae species that produce domoic acid - a potent neurotoxin.

Blooms of domoic acid producing algae in shallow water cause death and sickness in marine life, birds, and even humans who eat contaminated shellfish.  Perhaps the most persistent argument against ocean seeding or any type of carbon sequestering technology is that it does not change the harmful behaviors that produce excessive CO2. Much like carbon offsets, ocean seeding is the towel given to a flood victim - no prevention just cleanup.

Whether ocean seeding is given the green light in the future the technology raises interesting questions about the possibilities of carbon sequestering by biological species. At the same time scientists and investors alike must ask themselves: Are we saving our environment if we alter it? 

Related Reading:
Carbonscape: The Potential to Fix Carbon
No Fish Zones Coming Soon to Shores Near You

Image Credit:
Mr. T. in DC

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  • Posted on Dec. 27, 2008. Listed in:

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