A Response to Russ of Planktos

Russ comments in our previous post

Au contrair. The record shows that Planktos was long advocating and involved in ecorestoration not merely recently. The Way Back machine easily proves this. The strawman of Planktos that was created and the ad hominem attacks that were and are the hallmark of those opposed to this work for selfish reasons continue here. For example the fact that the Planktos ship Weatherbird was staffed by top scientists from around the world seems not only missing but refused. That Weatherbird was equipped and maintained by the same academic organizations that equip and maintain the NSF and NOAA fleet ships was eschewed. That the ship was captained by the most famous and dedicated professional mariners of Greenpeace, nah just call them bad people without a life long personal history of dedication to the ocean environment. The idea that Planktos projects were overly large at 50 tonnes of natural iron mineral dust into the Eastern Atlantic where 500 million tonnes of dust arrives in the wind was called reckless, what is the fraction 50/500,000,000. The idea of the target concentration of iron at 100 parts per trillion when the dangerous levels for fish is 1.3 parts per thousand was of course justification for the lies calling the iron a toxic waste cargo. The idea that the decline of ocean productivity is not happening and all is well in the oceans – ridiculous and ignorant, is there such a thing as an ostrich fish, they seem to be increasing in numbers. And the nonsense notion that 20 years and $200 million and many proposed projects on the desks of national funding agencies around the world more or less identical to those of Planktos by leading marine science institutes proves it doesn’t work and is fruitless. And for the last straw the orchestrated opposition to the careful small scale pilot research to find out the facts is indiciative of close mindedness and anti-science thinking. But hey for some ranting and lying about those who actually do things is way easier than actually doing something productive for the benefit of the planet.

Instead of posting there I believe my response justifies a new post.

I appreciate you appearance and retort here at DSN. I encourage the dialogue. However, I ask you keep it civil. I will not tolerate personalized attacks. I would also strongly urge you to provide scientific evidence for any claims you make (i.e. please provide citations).

First, the original website of Planktos did not mention ecorestoration as I recall.

Second, I cannot comment on the current staff and crew of the R/V Weatherbird II. At one time I do know that the R/V Weatherbird II was a UNOLS vessel. However, the ship was retired in 2006. What has happened since that time I do not know but I assumed that Planktos has purchased it. As far as the current scientific compliment of Planktos or the Weatherbird II, I cannot speak about it as the list of scientists has never been made public. Knowing Peter Wilcox captains the Weatherbird II is not an issue for me much as well as any crew of the Planktos. They don’t address my scientific concerns with the methodology of Planktos.

Third, the attacks here have never been personal or towards any particular individual. We here at DSN, and others, are skeptical of the scientific claims made by Planktos. The paper published earlier this year was lead by some of the world’s leading oceanographers (Ken O. Buesseler, Scott C. Doney, David M. Karl, Philip W. Boyd, Ken Caldeira, Fei Chai, Kenneth H. Coale, Hein J. W. de Baar, Paul G. Falkowski, Kenneth S. Johnson, Richard S. Lampitt, Anthony F. Michaels, S. W. A. Naqvi, Victor Smetacek, Shigenobu Takeda, Andrew J. Watson). These individuals are some of the most prominent scientists in the field with over thousands of publications and citations between them. They are recognized among other scientists as leaders. Indeed, a few of them sit on the National Academy of Sciences. In their review they urged a cautionary approach, the same we have advocated here.

Fourth, let us not mix apples and oranges here. No one doubts that iron fertilization will lead to a phytoplankton bloom. But the ability of this process to sequester carbon at large spatial and temporal scales, or at all, is questionable. What is even more alarming is that the potential environmental impacts both at the oceans surface and to the deep are not only unknown, but often ignored. Obviously, more research is needed and the Buesseler et al. (2008) study lays out a course of action. However, we feel that to promote ocean iron fertilization at this time as a means to reduce carbon dioxide is questionable (i.e. the selling of carbon credits). For example, my own criticism has been that there is no indication that export flux of POC is increased during iron release experiments (Nodder et al. 2001). But let’s assume that the percentage of total surface production that arrives at the seafloor is 10%, background is typically 4-5%. How much of that material is ‘sequestered’ at the seafloor and what is the time span at which it stays sequestered? 50-85% of all material that arrives at the deep-sea floor is remineralized within one year (Cole et al. 1987). The remainder has a residence time of 15-150 years in the surface sediment (Emerson et al. 1985) and only 0.3-3.0 years in the water column. So overall, we are only talking about 5% of surface production at the best for 150 years. Now I realize there may be some ‘wiggle room’ in these estimates, but 5% does not sound like a promising method to significantly reduce atmospheric CO2. If you can refute this please feel free to do so but provide peer-reviewed scientific articles to support your arguments.

Fifth, you mention that Planktos was considered reckless, your words not mine, for dumping 50 tonnes of natural iron mineral dust into the Eastern Atlantic. You mention 500 Mt per year, whereas this may be high (the numbers I know are between 178-259 for the entire North Atlantic, Duce et al. 1991, Propsero 1996, Ginoux et al. 20011, Zender et al. 2003, Tegen et al. 20054, Luo et al. 2003), it is much larger than the amount you intend to dump. The real question is does 50 tonnes of that 259 Mt arrive as a single pulse to a discrete and small spatial area? Additionally, in order for the Planktos plan to work, i.e. an iron-induced plankton bloom, this would need to occur in an area that does not normally receive iron enrichment, such as an area not acclimated to either iron enrichment or the biological consequences of plankton bloom. Chisholm et al. (2001) also comments that

It does not mimic nature. The proponents argue that ocean fertilization is similar to the natural iron deposition from atmospheric dust, and to the natural upwelling of nutrients from the deep sea. These analogies are flawed. Phytoplankton species that bloom in response to upwelling are adapted to a turbulent regime, and a complex mixture of upwelled nutrients that are part of the natural nutrient regeneration cycle of the oceans. Furthermore, proposed designs employ an artificial chelator, lignin acid sulfonate (14), which is designed to keep iron in solution and is chemically different from atmospheric iron sources. Finally, in intensive commercial ocean fertilization, iron would be delivered to ecosystems at rates that do not mimic the 1000-year time scales of glacial transition periods.

Again reckless is a charged word and I will not comment to what other’s opinions were. I will simply say that I believe further dialogue and work was needed before we even began to try such a project.

Sixth, you mention that iron levels would not be toxic for fish. Please provide peer-review scientific papers demonstrating the iron toxicity levels for a variety of fish, marine mammals, marine birds, and invertebrates. Also please indicate the model or evidence indicating that target iron levels will not exceed this.

Seventh, I am not arguing that ocean productivity is declining. Our current thinking suggests that global warming is reducing ocean mixing thereby depleting plankton of essential nutrients. Thus simply providing iron does not and will not address other potentially limiting nutrients.

Eighth, you claim “Ranting about potential unintended consequences when the certain consequences are happening from the carbon bomb already airborne. You know the 400 gigatonne bomb of deadly CO2 which has been emitted by the fossil fuel age already.” Your argument then moves to ocean acidification. No one here disputes ocean acidification or its rather alarming consequences. That does not change the criticisms of your method. You seem ready to proceed with an unproven method that may leave us with both a 400 gigatonne bomb as well as numerous other environmental bombs. Instead, we rather not make the situation worse by proceeding with a haphazard plan by a for profit company.

Dr. M (1605 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

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