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Scientists to fight global warming with plankton

Source:  Copyright 2007, Australian
Date:  May 21, 2007
Original URL: Status DEAD

ONE of the Earth's major natural barriers to global warming could be strengthened by the first commercial venture to grow vast plankton blooms.

US eco-restoration firm Planktos intends to drop tonnes of powdered iron into the Pacific in a two-year project which aims to induce the growth of plankton.

Some scientists believe the iron seeding technique will help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after research published on Friday showed that atmospheric carbon dioxide is no longer being absorbed by the Southern Ocean at the rate it used to be.

“The ocean's rising acidity and surface water temperatures and most of all the dwindling wind-borne supply of vital iron micronutrients have literally decimated the marine plankton plants which generate half the planet's oxygen, remove half its CO2 and feed every higher form of ocean life,” said Planktos CEO Russ George.

“However, public concern with the climate change issue may finally highlight and help reverse this crisis as more people recognise that simply restoring these plankton back to known 1980 levels can remove 3-4 billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 or approximately half of our global warming surplus today.

“We are trying to demonstrate that this restoration is not only achievable and affordable with targeted iron dust replenishment, it is absolutely necessary to rehabilitate the ocean's health.”

Each decade since 1981, the ocean has soaked up between 5 per cent and 30 per cent less of the greenhouse gas than experts had predicted and has unloaded more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the international team led by Dr Corinne Le Quere, from the University of East Anglia and British Antarctic Survey, said.

Like the rainforests, the Southern Ocean is one of the most important carbon “sinks” that together remove half of all man-made emissions of carbon dioxide. It acts like a huge sponge, trapping carbon from the atmosphere.

“We (Planktos) are now launching a two-year series of commercial-scale pilot projects that will seed and track six large forest-sized plankton blooms in various ocean regions,” George said.

“Based on the science derived from 10 earlier international research trials, each of these blooms should regenerate tens of millions of tons of plankton life and deep ocean sequester 3-5 million tons of CO2. Most importantly this work can dramatise that humanity can make a hugely significant climate difference with a safe, simple and very green natural technology.”

Planktos plans to pour 100 tonnes of iron into the Pacific in a bid to reverse this trend, despite concerns in the scientific community.

The powdered iron provides a crucial nutrient for plankton growth that is missing or in short supply in up to 70 per cent of the world's oceans.

Phytoplankton, the plant form of plankton, struggle to grow if there is little iron - but the extra supplies could mean that as the phytoplankton grow they will photosynthesise and absorb carbon that, when they die and sink, will be trapped on the seabed, where it will be out of the system.

The project will take place in international waters 500km west of the Galapagos Islands and Planktos hopes to create a bloom of 50-60 million tonnes of which, it estimates, up to 20 per cent will sink and take 3-5 million tonnes of carbon with it.

If it is a success, it could open up iron seeding to the carbon offsetting industry, giving companies an alternative to planting trees to compensate for carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

But experiments on a much smaller scale have already been carried out and their findings cast doubt on the likely success of bigger carbon-removal projects.

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