German ocean experiment dead in cold water

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The geo-engineering experiment had been highly criticized by environmentalists for having unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences.

Berlin -- Indian and German scientists have said that a controversial experiment has "dampened hopes" that dumping hundreds of tonnes of dissolved iron in the Southern Ocean can lessen global warming.

The experiment involved "fertilising" a 300-square-kilometre (115-sqare-mile) area of ocean inside the core of an eddy -- an immense rotating column of water -- with six tonnes of dissolved iron.

As expected, this stimulated growth of tiny planktonic algae or phytoplankton, which it was hoped would take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the principal greenhouse gas blamed for climate change, and absorb it.

However, the scientists from India's National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) and Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) did not count on these phytoplankton being eaten by tiny crustacean zooplankton.

"The cooperative project Lohafex has yielded new insights on how ocean ecosystems function," an AWI statement published on Monday said.

"But it has dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus mitigate global warming."

Earlier projects with iron fertilisation were more successful because they used algae protected by hard shells that do not thrive in the Southern Ocean, the AWI said.

The team set sail from Cape Town on January 7 and spent an "arduous" two and half months conducting the experiments, buffeted by the treacherous waves of the notorious "Roaring Forties" and twice having to escape approaching storms.

Spicy Indian curries at each meal "contributed to the good atmosphere" however in an "exciting experience laced with the spirit of adventure and haunted by uncertainty quite unlike other scientific cruises," the AWI said.

The experiment is one of several schemes collectively known as geo-engineering which have been getting a closer hearing in recent years in the absence of political progress to roll back the greenhouse gas problem.

But these projects have been heavily criticised by environmentalists for failing to tackle the human behaviour that causes global warming and for having unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences.

Other geo-engineering ideas include sowing sulphur particles in the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation and erecting mirrors in orbit that would deflect sunrays and thus slightly cool the planet.


1 Comment To This Article

  • Russ posted:

    on 25th March 2009, 00:44:39 - Reply

    I must disagree with the inference on the tagging of the LohaFex experiment as a bust. What this experiment showed is that iron replenishment and ocean ecorestoration is indeed very possible. That the bloom created was quickly converted from living plant biomass into living animal biomass is the natural scheme of ocean ecology. Especially so under the conditions encountered by the LohaFex team.

    There can be no question that the few tonnes of replenished iron restored ocean plant life at the same levels of efficiency shown by decades of research, that being each tonne of iron yields the plant biomass equivalence of 367,000 tonnes of CO2. Given that this vast amount of biomass is now in the web of ocean life means it is restoring vital ocean fertility.

    Recall that the Southern Ocean has suffered decimating loss of plant life, due to iron depletion effects of high CO2, more than 10% of ocean plants are missng from what was seen less than 30 years ago. So while those few tonnes of iron may not have sent the CO2 to the bottom it has taken that amount of CO2 out of the ocean acidification pathway and repositioned it in the standing living biomass of the Southern Ocean. Had those few millions of tonnes of CO2 not become Southern Ocean plant life it would surely now be Southern Ocean acidifying death.

    This work showed that there is an absolute need to carefully pick the ocean ecosystem that one aims to replenish and restore to achieve the greatest benefit. It also shows that one must design the work to meet minimal ecosystem demands in terms of scale, timing, location, and ecological implications. What LohaFex did was to replenish a very small amount of iron into a very small patch of ocean that was surrounding the new bloom and already enjoying abundant blooming.

    It was surely clear from the first water samples taken that the state of depleted silica meant the ocean had bloomed and consumed other vital mineral nutrients thus limiting or perhaps better put changing anticipated the beneficial effect of the iron replenishment. Thus it was known this would redirect the ecological effect toward species that are less dependent on silica. This led quite predictably to less sinking of large diatoms as carbonate and silicate rocks and instead favoured other species. However it also means that the iron, as clearly observed at the end of the project, remains replenshed in the surface ocean continuing to benefit the ecosystem for months to come. It is the same as what is happening in that same region of ocean as the observed iron rich icebergs melt randomly supporting and sustaining a more robust and varied ecosystem. In fact iron leaves the surface ocean primarily fixed to the biomass it stimulates growth of, as it recycles thus no iron goes to waste.

    A key feature of the LohaFex blooms is that the very small size of the patch, and the fact that the region was blooming and preloaded with grazers. This led to those grazers enjoying the free lunch and dispatching the much of new bloom in relatively short order. It is as if you decided to plant a tiny patch of lettuce in a vast field of rabbits, the rabbits would graze the emerging lettuce in a flash leaving little to grow to maturity. If one had planted a large patch of lettuce some considerable distance from any large populations of rabbits before the rabbits discovered and populated the rich territory the lettuce patch would have grown to maturity and be sustaining itself. Lettuce and rabbits would fall into synch along with the rest of the ecosystem and all would flourish.

    However even so the LohaFex rabbits(copepods, amphipods, and whales)continue to recycle the iron and other nutrients as they eat and defecate and are eaten and converted into all manner of marine life.

    What LohaFex does NOT show is that the replenishment of iron to achieve ocean restoration does not work as your report tends to suggest. This politically charged sentiment is nonsense that panders to the distortions of those who would make the guise of science into an excuse for non-critical thinking?

    How is it that a forest on land, which never leaves the living biosphere to be buried in abysmal sediments, is recognized as being of enormous value to the environment and society and its standing biomass carbon content is allowed to be monetized in emerging carbon markets to provided an economic stimulus to the planting, restoration, and protection of forest ecosystems.

    So most certainly LohaFex is another, albeit small, step along the path to understanding how we must proceed to becoming active stewards of our oceans. Those oceans are by all accounts in the most dire of straits as reports are showing. Only this year the Southern Ocean was reported to be doomed to tip over the proverbial deadly tipping point of ocean CO2 acidification by 2030, a mere 21 years away. That tipping point is certain based on the preloaded carbon bomb of hundreds of gigatonnes of CO2 already in the air and destined to dissolve into the surface ocean. It will occur regardless of whether we slow additional emissions, as the first carbon bomb is more than sufficient to produce the deadly acidification. The only means to counter that first carbon bomb is by replenishing the oceans mineral micronutrients and accomplishing ocean ecorestoration. The restored ocean plants will fix and convert deadly CO2 into ocean life, the phyto-plankton, copepods, amphipods and whales of PolarStern's voyage.

    My own company Planktos Science is well known in this field and in fact we worked hard some few years ago to convince the German Institute and Prof. Smetacek to engage in a much larger more ideally situated, longer term, and better suited iron replenishment experiment. Sadly the attacks on this topic by means of lies and subterfuge of the likes of Greenpeace and other nare-do-wells scared the Germans and their Indian partners into this minimalist effort which is now most useful in proving How Not To engage in meaningful ocean restoration.

    Your casting this important work into the mere context of the fight story over potential CO2 sequestration results does a grave disservice to this important field of ecorestoration science and to the planet.

    For more info read