Here We Go Again With Dumping Iron Into the Ocean

The Planktos Incident continues. Just when I thought it had died. Russ George, former head of the defunct Planktos, has decided to, despite the scientific community asking for a more cautious and sensible approach and international moratoriums, dump 100 tons of iron into the ocean. In discussing the DSN core value of Awareness Through Scrutiny, Not Negativity Rick provided a great history of the incident which I provide now slightly edited.

To tell this tale, we need to turn the clock back and dust off a few posts from the Deep Sea News archives, as well as Miriam’s The Oyster’s Garter and Rick’s Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets. Back in 2007 a small California-based start-up, Planktos, began pitching a concept for marine ecosystem restoration, climate change mitigation, and the creation a carbon offset scheme for individuals and businesses.

Planktos planned to triangulate these goals via the artificial fertilization of open-ocean algal blooms. The company proposed mimicking the addition of nutrients that naturally occurs along coastlines through the artificial “seeding” of iron filings into seawater. This concept and proposed methodology presented a means to fix and quite literally sink oceanic and atmospheric carbon dioxide. As an added bonus, it created a carbon offset scheme that could be pitched to potential investors looking for a method to reduce their carbon footprint.

It was a great idea… a beautiful idea. But to quote Thomas Henry Huxley, it was a beautiful hypothesis marred by an ugly fact.

In late 2007, I published a short critique of Planktos’ proposed iron fertilization off the Galapagos Islands. In that post, I posed what I thought were a few unanswered (and not trivial) questions:

“What might a rain of iron filings mean for benthic ocean communities? Where does the iron filing supply come from and what contaminants might it have? And since not all phytoplankton are alike, what happens if you spur on harmful algal blooms. Finally, couldn’t the lure of massive profit potentially taint your research into the efficacy (or threats) from your iron dumping scheme?”

Shortly thereafter, a follow-up post by Dr. M on Deep Sea News pressed Planktos for a response to his own questions regarding their methodology. Dr. M leveled his skepticism at the out-of-sight, yet problematic, seafloor impacts following the dumping of iron filings into the ocean – including the lack of ability to quantify any long-term and downstream effects, potential oxygen depleted conditions of the seafloor below fertilization, enhanced release of nitrous oxide with two hundred times the greenhouse gas potential of carbon dioxide during the decomposition of organisms, and lack of predictability of the amount of carbon dioxide that will actually sink to the seafloor and how long it will be sequestered.

Following this post, Miriam on The Oyster’s Garter leveled a comprehensive dismantling of the science behind the company’s responses to criticism from the scientific community. “I’m appalled Planktos has even gotten off the ground with such poor, nonsensical science,” wrote Miriam back in October of 2007. You should head back to Miriam’s original post as it still stands as a beautiful point-by-point rebuttal of junk science.

With little to no apparent regard for a precautionary approach, Planktos was essentially proposing geoengineering on a massive scale with little to no understanding of the effect of iron fertilization on ocean ecosystems. Shortly after our blog posts raised the level of scrutiny on Planktos’ plans, several international conservation NGOs as well as a few Galapagos-based conservation groups expressed their own concerns over plans to dump iron filings into Galapagos’ waters.

By February 2008, the scrutiny apparently proved to be too much for the start-up. Lacking sufficient capitalization and investor interest, Planktos announced their plans to “indefinitely postpone activities”. It wasn’t too long thereafter that their commercial website was shuttered and the founder issued a statement that, “A highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders has provoked widespread opposition to plankton restoration in the environmental world, and has caused the company to encounter serious difficulty in raising the capital needed to fund its planned series of ocean research trials.”

Now to build on the story of Rick’s great history…

The head of Planktos was Russ George. In 2008, George and Planktos tried to reinvent themselves largely through a make over of the website. As I wrote then…

Is this the wolf in a sheep’s cloths or has Planktos really reinvented themselves? One of the reasons Planktos originally closed-up shop, according to them, was a suite of bad publicity. This bad publicity was of course the scientific community questioning the scientific validity and unexpected outcomes of gross iron fertilization in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It appears that Planktos is simply trying to “green” their image. One way of doing this is by now using the term ecorestoration

Our mission is the restoration of damaged habitats in the ocean and on land. By restoring plankton ecosystems in the oceans and growing new forestation projects worldwide, we are able to help mitigate the impacts modern society has on our planet. We engage in active ecorestoration because mere conservation and reduction of our footprint upon the planet will clearly not be sufficient to pass our success as planetary stewards to our children. The harm we have caused this small blue planet must be healed, and it will take a determined and intelligent effort to accomplish this.

Ecorestoration, or restoring plankton ecosystems, is just another way to say ocean iron fertilization. Another quote from the new website that bothers me

Planktos projects restore plankton populations to revive marine ecosystems

However, what specific negative impacts of ocean gross iron fertilization will have both on the ocean’s surface biology but on the deep ocean is largely unknown. The other issue is how much current ocean degradation is actually due to issues that ocean fertilization can mitigate? Probably little.

The new Planktos also claims to solve our ocean fisheries collapse, fuel crisis, ocean acidification, and provide new medicines in addition. The connections between these goals and ocean iron fertilization are tenuous at best.

This post received a response from George himself where he rehashed older arguments and again I questioned the science of iron fertilization. I argued we should not make the situation worse by proceeding with a haphazard plan by a for profit company. Of course, the most prominent physical, biological, and chemical oceanographers published in Science that same year that “It is premature to sell carbon offsets from ocean iron fertilization unless research provides the scientific foundation to evaluate risks and benefits.”

It was agreed by all that this was not the way forward and thankfully we heard little else from Planktos and Russ George. Until now…

George decided to ignore science, the scientific community, and throw caution to the wind. From the Guardian…

A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July…Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a “blatant violation” of two international moratoria and the news is likely to spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit taking place in India this week.

Keep in mind that Agenda Item 12 from the US to the London Convention back in 2007 stated concern of Planktos operations in international waters noting that

Planktos, Inc. was not able to provide the EPA with any information relating to an evaluation by the company or by any regulatory body of the potential environmental impacts of their planned iron addition projects, such as:

  1. the estimated amount and potential impacts of iron that is not taken up by phytoplankton;
  2. the amounts and potential impacts of other materials that may be released with the iron;
  3. the estimated amounts and potential impacts of other gases that may be produced by the expected phytoplankton blooms or by bacteria decomposing the dead phytoplankton;
  4. the estimated extent and potential impacts of deep ocean hypoxia (low oxygen) or anoxia (no oxygen) caused by the bacterial decay of the expected phytoplankton blooms; or
  5. the types of phytoplankton that are expected to bloom and the potential impacts of any harmful algal blooms that may develop.

In 2008 191 nations agreed to a moratorium on large-scale commercial iron fertilization schemes.

The agreement, adopted on 30 May at a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany, calls for a ban on major ocean fertilization projects until scientists better understand the potential risks and benefits of manipulating the oceanic food chain.

Indeed the rules were so stringent it actually had the negative impact of limiting some legitimate scientific research into iron fertilization. But George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a “mythology” and do not apply to his project.

And so here we are again. Satellite imagery from NASA indicates George triggered an artificial plankton bloom roughly 10,000 square kilometers (see image at the Guardian article) off of British Columbia. This has undoubtedly altered the deep-sea systems below it, but for how long?

George states that

his team of unidentified scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from US agencies like Nasa and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. He told the Guardian that it is the “most substantial ocean restoration project in history,” and has collected a “greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before”.

Of course call me skeptical that NASA and NOAA had any official role in this as again it is against international law. I also cannot imagine any team of scientists being involved with this either for the same reason…or the baggage that George brings to the table.

Of course the whole event gets even more distasteful. George dumped this off of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada and home of the indigenous population of Haida. George convinced the Haida to channel more than one million dollars of their own funds into the project that would supposedly benefit the ocean and salmon populations.

The president of the Haida nation, Guujaaw, said the village was told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is crucial to their livelihood and culture.”The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention,” Guujaaw said.

So what is the next step? I believe he is culpable of fraud against the Haida and for knowingly breaking international law. He should be held accountable for each of these.

Nothing has changed over the last 3-4 years…iron fertilization is not a viable solution to mitigate climate change, decreasing productivity of the oceans, salmon declines, or anything else except for making iron salesman very happy. In fact iron fertilization actually causes the reverse…an unhealthier ocean in ways both envisioned and not.

Dr. M (1606 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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39 comments on “Here We Go Again With Dumping Iron Into the Ocean
  1. Um, it was just an advisory, not international law. And it was against “dumping,” not “fertilizing” (the legally accurate term).

    But, feel free to keep repeating the same lame arguments. I’m sure you’ll get the EPA on your side. WAIT! Oh crap. It’s Canada. The EPA has no jurisdiction.

    Well, maybe you can get the Canadian officials all whipped into a rich-environmentalist-fanatic froth and they’ll go out to the Haida lands and…what? Arrest people for fertilizing a Salmon Run?

    Man, you are smoking dope.

    • Jim,
      The moratorium was clearly a response to iron fertilization as a geosequestration mechanism whether called dumping or fertilizing so I am not sure what point you are making.

      Lame arguments? Do you mean either a lack of evidence that this mechanisms will even remotely work or the evidence that such schemes could cause detrimental harm to both pelagic and benthic habitats?

      Actually, if the reports from the Guardian are accurate then George intentionally misrepresented himself and his plan to the Haida Nation. This would be considered fraud and be illegal. If the “dumping” occurred in Canadian waters he also conducted this without permission from the Canadian government, also illegal.

      • I was one of the advisors who evaluated the original Planktos proposals — in depth– back in 2007. So I know more about this work than all of you folks combined.

        The Canadian government environmental and science agencies not only approved this research, they actively supported it, as did NASA and a huge number of other science organizations. Apparently in all of your fact-checking for your blog, you didn’t, um, bother to find out about this.

        The problem here is that you folks are simply regurgitating the hyperbolic, hysterical headlines of the Guardian, and throwing in your own anti-science hysteria to match. You seem to think that if you say “it’s illegal” in your headlines, that somehow makes it illegal.

        Sorry, doesn’t work that way. The UN resolutions (or moratorium, or whatever) aren’t laws and they have no bite. They are, quite frankly, bullshit, created by the opponents of iron fertilization as a way to block legitimate research. This is an open (and quite resented) knowledge in the marine science world.

        Finally, regarding the fraud, well good luck proving it. Ha ha. George has spent that past 5 years educating the Haida about what this work was, what the risks were, etc. He is on record in about 10 million google links as the leading proponent of ocean fertilization. How could anybody claim that they don’t know what he is doing when he’s spoken about it a million times?

        Here’s the reality: you environmentalists thought you had iron fertilization research blocked. And then Russ George simple flipped the bird at you, and did it anyway. And now you are waving your arms around and screaming like whiny spoiled asshole kids, because you simply could not imagine that somebody would defy you.

        Russ George and other ocean iron researchers are sending you a message: screw you. You are ignorant anti-science jerks who have used every sleazy, illegal, and underhanded trick in the book to block research in this field. We are simply going to ignore you and keep doing our research. If you don’t like it, too bad.

        There is nothing you can do to stop it. Fishing-dependant nations all over the world are going to be giving George a ring, once we see if the fish catch in a couple years is increased. And we as a race will pull our heads out of the sand and stop ignoring the fact that we screwed up the oceans, and we have to learn to to fix them. And that means MORE ocean iron research, not less.

    • Jim, could you please read the article – don’t skim it – and then choose a position that is relevant to the discussion. And yes, be critical of the argument if you have reason.

      • Dear Folks:

        Look at all the progress the non-scientific community has made… All grown up… Not too long ago, some (very rich) jerk decided the North American continent needed all Shakespeare’s birds, so the friggin starlings got here. Now, some guy want to either arbitrarily or with steadfast purpose grow plankton, lots of it. Iron is a limiting nutrient in many systems. So, it will do what disruptions do. Some forms of life will like it, some will hate it, and diversity will probably be enhanced. Well guess what?

        If it was Pandas, Spotted Owls, Mountain Gorillas, Elephants, Rhinos, or any of the animals that drive members and staff at the Sierra Club bonkers at the thought of their passing, we would have scrambled planes long ago. There would be bake-sales, protests, televised fund-raisers, PETA would be begging people in TEARS to join with their cause… However, it’s a primary producer we don’t really care about.

        Or do we? I mean, they produce a HUGE amount of the oxygen we breath, and fix most of the carbon that gets fixed… I have seen the issue George may be reacting to. He is pissed about a lack of funding, and that happens to the best of us. The people/organizations that fund this sort of thing “weren’t born yesterday”, and want proof of a few things before they buy a tanker and just about sink it by loading it down with processed iron filings. They asked for a scientific study, which is what George should have been asking for funding for in the first place.

        I have news for you: the world will be just fine. All the fuzzy cute things we are annihilating on a daily basis will be replaced by even cuter things that evolve within only 20 million years.

        WE will not be fine. WE are the endangered species, the dominant species always is. WE should be focusing on executing a solution before our world turns to sh!t. Which most of it already has. We all live in a glass house, so put the stones down. Being sarcastic and clippy says nothing of your ability to understand oceanic processes and the science of plankton and algae. Grow up, we may not have much more time for this.

  2. Aw come on guys. There is no altruism here. Russ George is like those folks that phone you up or email you to tell you that a rich relative in (England, Nigeria, Austrailia- you pick) has died and you need to send him $5,000 to get your $5 million dollars out of escrow.

    He has the same credibility as those emails I delete and the callers I hang up on.

    Hanging up now ..

  3. My Mother researched this, and handed out info to the people. They voted in favour of it anyway. She warned the Haida president Guujaaw about it as well, and he now denies any knowledge of the project until it happened. Not sure if it is related to this, but there were two dead sea lions on the beach a few weeks ago, and the shellfish are closed due to “red tide” right now.

  4. Did he carry out the Haida Gwaii dump in total secrecy? I can’t find any past articles, blogs, comments etc. that warn of his plans. Not even the name Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation comes up in Canadian News Stand Archives. It baffles me he could carry out this plan in Canadian waters without the Federal Government having any foreknowledge. It seems other Governments, environmental groups were aware of any “experiments” taking place in their waters. Very disturbed by the secrecy in which this was carried out. (I am of course giving the Harper Government the benefit of the doubt here. I really shouldn’t when he has muzzled government environmental scientists, initiated witch hunts on environmental charities i.e. Suzuki Foundation..not to mention The Environment Minister is a MMGW denier, Science Minister a creationist etc.)

  5. Pingback: To Increase Salmon Populations, Company Dumped 110 Tons of Iron Into the Pacific Ocean | Smart News

  6. Pingback: Shady Geoengineering Executive Dupes First Nation into Shady Geoengineering Scheme | On a Quasi-Related Note

  7. I just heard about this a few minutes ago (16 Oct 2012) even though I am still have an active interest in seabird research on Haida Gwaii. I am not at all surprised that there has been no response from Canadian government scientists. Neither the navy nor the coastguard are particularly active west of the islands. It is highly unlikely that any Canadian scientists have the resources to initiate a study of the consequences of the event or that any such study would be released by the relevant government departments. I suspect that they are as surprised and embarrassed as I am to “discover” this event dumped on their collective doorstep.

    The subject is extremely complex and requires a sophisticated understanding of marine ecosystems. It is hugely unfair to expect local government, the Old Massett Band Council or even the Council of the Haida Nation, to make an informed decision about theoretical issues in the face of a clever sales pitch. Too bad Mister Russ did not claim government endorsement, then no one would have trusted him.

  8. I’m sorry, why is it ‘hugely unfair’ to expect local First Nations governments to make informed decisions? I’d love to hear a half baked ‘noble savage’ type defence. Earlier in the comments someone mentioned a local woman researched arguments and proferred them to the Council Chief – which may or may not be true – but the information is out there for anyone with a smart phone to find. And what do you know, I just checked and it looks like they have internet! And yes, it’s complex – but in the space of four articles I think I’ve come to glean that an ‘experiment’ of this size is CRAZY and CRIMINAL.

  9. It’s criminal alright. The dump happened in July..and only now has it come to light err…bloom. Still baffled how this guy and his company were able to plan and carry out this dump without anyone knowing until now.

  10. No problem. Thanks for covering this. I know how this will go for us here in Canada. Harper Government will refuse to answer questions, Environment Canada scientists are still muzzled, forbidden from speaking to public without PMO authorization http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1139734–prestigious-science-journal-slams-harper-government-s-muzzle-on-federal-scientists and Canadian media won’t bother demanding answers. Hopefully our scientists keep up the protest http://www.ottawacitizen.com/technology/Scientists+unite+protest+death+research/6902054/story.html

  11. Pingback: Compare the Pros and Cons on Iron Fertilization of the Oceans « GALACTIC CONNECTION

  12. Thank you for this.

    Tiny quibble – it’s Russ George, not George Russ, no? Looks like you’ve got ‘George Russ’ in the second sentence and tagged the article ‘George Russ’ rather than ‘Russ George’.

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  15. Oh my. This is horrible! Someone said earlier that there are not enough resources to monitor the changes properly in Canada. Have there been sufficient benthic studies in the area to compare to? As far as your info goes, Jim, I see you sitting on a Monsanto panel pushing for BT crops. While it makes more cotton and corn now, it is altering the bacterial populations in the soil. Who knows what damage this will do in the future?

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  17. Just to clarify that there was only ONE Haida village council involved, the Old Massett Village Council of Haida Gwaii.

    From a CBC article:
    “Guujaw, the president of the Haida Nation, said the actions and words of the Old Massett village did not reflect those of the Haida Nation.
    He said the village is operated as a band council under the federal Indian Act, and that the village could claim to operate outside of Canadian law was “a ludicrous idea.”
    “The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment,” said Guujaw in a statement issued on Thursday.”

    source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/10/19/bc-ocean-fertilization-haida.html

  18. How can you state that this iron fertilization actually causes the reverse? I’ve been a marine biologist for 12 years and the articles that I’ve read on the subject have been quite encouraging toward to Mr. George’s experiment.

    I think the scientific community should come together and collaborate with this project. They say it amounts to 0.037g per square meter (http://www.hsrc1.com/blog/) -this is hardly dumping in comparison to marine pollution created by sewage and tankers.

    Give Russ George a break, maybe he is just trying to save the world.

    • Wow, refreshing outlook. Maybe we should experiment where the Valdez ran aground, or the Deep Water Horizon exploded, can’t accuse someone of breaking something that’s broken.

      By the way, when you made your post, Shannon, a rose sprung from a dead bush in my front yard. Must have been the warm breath of the voice of reason. Thanks for that!

      PS if there’s anyone who really has not had their fill of conspiracies and venom, go over to you-tube land and spout about chem trails. Hilarious, and you don’t need a degree there either.

  19. @Shannon
    Our world doesn’t need to be saved. Mother Earth would save itselft without our “help”.

    Instead it’s the mankind, we humans, who have to be saved.

  20. Dr. M., I have posted some comments elsewhere on this site. Can someone please tell me if the Haida and their agents dumped the iron on or near the Bowie Seamount? This seems like the ideal location to :encourage: a phytoplankton bloom. It also seems to be very close to the phytoplankton bloom captured in those satellite photos. This is a protected area, and guess who’s protecting it: the Haida and the Canadian government. There are two other seamounts in that area which are not protected (to my knowledge). And there are many other seamounts in the northeast pacific, not in the same location as that phytoplankton bloom.

    News reports vaguely refer to the Haida dumping iron in international waters west of Haida Gwaii. Surely there is some way to determine the exact location of where this dumping began and ended. Aren’t there constellations of disaster monitoring satellites that circle the globe taking pictures around the clock?

    Now it would seem to me that there might be some consequences other than phytoplankton blooms that might result from this sort of thing. Let’s see, dumping iron on an undersea volcano causes…

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  22. Hey, I don’t support the action based on the relative risks and unknowns but PLANKTOS made the dump and are supposedly gathering data which is what needs to be done, at this point.

    I would hope that the Canadien’s and other, respected university and governmental research bodies are up there monitoring the situation and gathering data as well, in order to get a unbiased handle on what is actually happening to the marine ecosystem since the dump occurred.

    And PLANKTOS, for future reference: For the sake of our fragile planet and posterity—Please, NOT SO Fast!!!

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  24. Pingback: The Haida Salmon Restoration Project: Dumping iron in the ocean to save fish, capture carbon | ClimateViewer News

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