Scientists are getting serious about one long-touted possible solution to manmade climate change: Fertilizing the ocean.
Researchers know that if they sprinkle the sea with iron it creates plankton blooms that can absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
But while private companies have moved to commercially seed the sea, scientists – especially those at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – have urged a far more measured approach to fully understand fertilization’s environmental risks and benefits.
Today, in order to understand those impacts, an international consortium was launched with 12 universities and research centers around the world. The group hopes to raise up to $200 million from public and private funds. In addition to Woods Hole, The University of Massachusetts Boston and the University of Rhode Island are also consortium members.
“Without good science, governments or corporations might move ahead with (iron fertilization) projects prematurely, particularly as carbon markets develop or climate change threats become more serious,” Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at Woods Hole who is helping lead the organization said in a statement. Woods Hole colleague Dennis McGillicuddy is also helping organize the consortium. We need to be working now, to ensure that we know potential impacts and consequences.”
Iron seeding is just one of several "geo-engineering" schemes emerging as the world fails to adequately rein in emissions of greenhouse gases from cars, factories, and power plants.
Some scientists have suggested erecting giant mirrors above the earth to reflect the sun's energy. Others want to drop sulfur particles from high altitude balloons to do the same. Others suggest seeding the ocean with nitrogen, another limiting nutrient in parts of the sea. But the ideas, including iron fertilization, are controversial because some fear it will create other environmental problems or take away from the need to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Since 1993, there have been 14 open ocean fertilization experiments up to 13 miles across. Researchers add iron to the sea which allows plankton to grow. Then, through photosynthesis, the plankton uses carbon dioxide to create organic carbon, some of which sinks to the ocean depths where it can remain sequestered for decades to centuries.
The new consortium, called ISIS, for in situ iron studies, want to conduct far larger experiments up to hundreds of miles across, use supercomputers for planning and remote vehicles for monitoring.
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