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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Deep sea, deep green

Here's another of my unpublished stories from the vaults of the late Western Standard. I wrote it early in the summer, so it's a bit dated now. For more news about the company I'm reporting on, see its website: http://www.planktos.com/Newsroom.

Somewhere off the shores of the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, a lowly phytoplankton needs a boost of iron. But, according to Planktos Corp. of San Francisco, plankton living in this environmentally important area of the sea can’t get enough of their daily iron dose, a problem that’s causing the population of the minuscule sea organism to collapse, adversely affecting all sea life in turn. But Planktos, a publicly traded company that employs controversial Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania, has a solution: dump 45 tons of iron filings into the ocean, thus not only pumping up the carbon-dioxide-gobbling phytoplankton but also reducing global warming in the process.

Save the seas and cut global warming at the same time? Planktos says it’s feasible, but its plan hinges on eco-sensitive corporations, individuals and governments paying the company to spread the iron dust in the ocean to offset their greenhouse-gas producing activities elsewhere. But while the company and its European subsidiary, KlimaFa (which specializes in reforestation), churn out press releases promoting their carbon-offset work, critics say the company’s science and business plan are both questionable.

Shares of the company were trading on the risky OTC Bulletin Board in the (US) $1.30 range in mid-July, compared to eight cents last fall. Critics have noted that Skalbania was charged in 1997 and ultimately found guilty of stealing $100,000 from an investor. He was also involved in several stock-market ventures of dubious integrity.

The centerpiece of Planktos’ activities is a ship called the Weatherbird II, which sailed from Washington, D.C. last spring but by mid-summer was still in Florida taking on 10 tons of iron, along with supplies and scientific equipment to ready itself its test-run “voyage of recovery” to the South Pacific. “Our real goal this year, more than any of the business experiments,” spokesman David Kubiak says, “is to try to get some public awareness, to put plankton right up their with penguins and polar bears, the poster kids of planetary distress.”

Stirring words, but they’re largely falling on deaf ears among environmentalists. "This is an irresponsible and unpredictable venture by purely profit-driven individuals," Elizabeth Bravo, of Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, said earlier this year. "It threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk and it should be stopped."

Nevertheless, the acting leader of the B.C. Green Party, Christopher Bennett, says he is intrigued by the Planktos plan. “My gut reaction is that polluting the ocean can’t be the way to clean the ocean or the planet,” he says. “But I’m open to new ideas.” In the meantime, he’s calling for the formation of a voluntary association to assess all companies’ environmental claims. “Based on my own experience over the last two to three years,” says the former corporate public-relations consultant, “30-40 per cent of businesses are making claims about their environmental record that are false, that are probably not entirely accurate at all.” Will Planktos end up in this group? Only the plankton know for sure.

#

--TERRY O’NEILL

Posted by Terry O'Neill on October 16, 2007 in Science | Permalink

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Comments

This is a good idea. More plankton, more sea invertebrates, more fish, more birds. Maybe we can even restore our exhausted fisheries. It is the marine equivalent to a watering a desert.

I guess environmentalists are against a thriving, diverse and productive ecosystem if Man has anything to do with it.

Epsi

Posted by: Epsilon | 2007-10-16 11:23:56 AM


...dunno, but did my post disappear?

Asking if Western Standard has folded.

'Here's another of my unpublished stories from the vaults of the late Western Standard.'

Posted by: tomax7 | 2007-10-16 12:35:25 PM


...whoops, sorry, posted in the wrong blogstream, thought my post got nixed for some reason.

Just saw the 150,000 explanation in another stream.

My bad.

Posted by: tomax7 | 2007-10-16 12:39:13 PM


Can't comment on whether it's a good idea however if Skalbania is involved, I'd watch my back.

Posted by: atric | 2007-10-16 12:52:39 PM


I particularly like the "polluting the ocean" line referring to redistributing a well known ocean limiting nutrient, key link in the biosphere and one of the most common elements on the planet.

Greens like the idea of carbon credits until it involves actually doing something (new) which then triggers the "precautionary principle" meaning until you know the consequences of everything, do nothing.

If today's Greens ruled the world of the past the way they rule today (in Western Liberal Democracies), you wouldn't be allowed to use fire or implement the invention of the wheel.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2007-10-16 1:26:33 PM


"You wouldn't be allowed to use fire or implement the invention of the wheel"

...but think of health benefits (no smokers) all the traffic jams you'd avoid causing on Monday morning...

*sigh*

I miss 70's utopia...

Posted by: tomax7 | 2007-10-16 2:27:20 PM


This project has a great deal of detractors, and to say the science is unproven is being generous. The basic problem with this is what happens once the plankton die. When plankton dies the organisms that digest the plankton require oxygen. With large blooms comes depleated oxygen and then dead zones. Since there is no oxygen ocean life can not live. There are several dead zones in the world, the largest that I know of is in the Gulf Of Mexico by the Mississippi river.

Posted by: matt | 2007-10-17 9:53:18 AM


"There are several dead zones in the world, the largest that I know of is in the Gulf Of Mexico by the Mississippi river."

. . . and the second largest is between the ears of Taliban Jack Layton & his comrades.

Posted by: obc | 2007-10-17 9:59:39 AM


Besides the point that Matt had, there is another reason why this is probably a bad idea, we just don't know enough about the system as a whole to think we can fix it by dumping iron into it in order to grow more plankton, what else will be affected by it and in what way?

Large and complex system have an inherit latency to change and the ability to cope with extremes for a certain amount of time. Think of it i like a rubberband that can stretch to a certain level until it breaks.

More interesting is that James Lovett (the guy who created the Gaya Hypthoesis back in the 70s, go ahead and laugh, I know half of you want because it sounds so new-agey and you've never even read it) said in an interview last year he believed that it is too late to prevent climate change from happening and that instead we should prepare for the fall out of this.

Of course this will be laughed off by most people here, because when an earth science researcher talks about imminent he means 20 - 100 years and that is for most people too far out to be of a real concern, but if he is right then we need to start now moving infrastrucutre an people "out of the way" of the change. Dumping iron into the sea though (at best) will only be a band-aid solution.

Posted by: Snowrunner | 2007-10-17 10:59:22 AM


The year was 1969, the place, a U. of C. Chemistry lab, where I asked my lab partner if he was trying to commit suicide after noticing his forearms peppered with needle tracts. His reply was that his ecology professor had told his class that due to pollution, we would all be dead within 10 years, so why not go out with a buzz.

The madness continues!

Posted by: John Chittick | 2007-10-17 3:01:31 PM


Typical naysayers portending disaster to try to prevent this wonderful idea from even being tried.

The ocean covers 5/7 of the earth.

Just take a hundred square miles and do the experiment and see what happens. Whatever happens happens and the technology is adjusted accordingly to create the most desirable outcome.

These poo pooers that demand that an idea not even be tested because it will cause the world to end are nothing but 21st Century luddites.

Epsi

Posted by: Epsilon | 2007-10-17 3:21:22 PM


Would you burn the iron first. I think that would make it dissolve more easily. It might also help alleviate oxygen depletion.

Posted by: Peter_E | 2007-10-17 8:38:25 PM


I have not read what form the Iron is in. But if it is iron oxide (rust) it is fully oxidized and would consume no oxygen.

Iron filings would rust and consume oxygen, but I think the amount consumed would be inconsequential and once algae starts respiring, it would be consuming CO2 and releasing oxygen into the water. It is a CO2 splitter in a sense.

Dead algae is going to decompose and release CO2 that will be either taken up again by other plants or dissolved as carbonic acid. This has an acidifying effect on sea water. But typically what happens is that the dead material sinks to the ocean floor. If you have seen underwater footage from marine floors you will see that it is a veritable rainstorm of organic matter descending from the ocean column.

This organic matter blends with sediment and often becomes a seething mass of methane. But cold ocean depths freeze it to methyl hydrate.

If the sea floor ever warms up and thaws all the methyl hydrate, life on earth will come to a sudden suffocating end!

Epsi

Posted by: Epsilon | 2007-10-18 10:46:18 AM


I have not read what form the Iron is in. But if it is iron oxide (rust) it is fully oxidized and would consume no oxygen.

Iron filings would rust and consume oxygen, but I think the amount consumed would be inconsequential and once algae starts respiring, it would be consuming CO2 and releasing oxygen into the water. It is a CO2 splitter in a sense.

Dead algae is going to decompose and release CO2 that will be either taken up again by other plants or dissolved as carbonic acid. This has an acidifying effect on sea water. But typically what happens is that the dead material sinks to the ocean floor. If you have seen underwater footage from marine floors you will see that it is a veritable rainstorm of organic matter descending from the ocean column.

This organic matter blends with sediment and often becomes a seething mass of methane. But cold ocean depths freeze it to methyl hydrate.

If the sea floor ever warms up and thaws all the methyl hydrate, life on earth will come to a sudden suffocating end!

Epsi

Posted by: Epsilon | 2007-10-18 10:46:21 AM



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