Nanotechnology or not: Iron seeding of ocean seems premature at best

Nanotechnology or not: Iron seeding of ocean seems premature at best

Regular readers of Nanodot know that we often disagree with ETC Group — but not always. They have issued a press release condemning a plan by a private firm to seed the ocean with iron particles in an effort to fight global warming. An excerpt:

As worrying, Planktos boasts on their website that the iron they dump will be in nanoparticle form because nanoparticles float longer than normal particles.(8) (although Planktos have given contrary information in person). If this is true, then the Planktos experiment may be the largest intentional release of engineered nanoparticles ever undertaken.

So it’s not clear whether the iron particles are nanoscale or not. In any case, ETC Group opposes such geoengineering efforts and wants the UN to make climate decisions. Now, while Foresight normally favors “bottom-up” problem-solving, this Planktos project appears to be taking the idea rather far. It’s not clear that freelance efforts by one company to change ocean chemistry are a good idea at this point. This seeding project seems premature at the very best.

On the other hand, if global warming becomes as serious a problem as many expect, then some kind of geoengineering project may eventually be needed, and in that case the UN may not be the right entity to make those decisions. They may be too slow and politicized — we might all be cooked well-done before they took action. But having one company making the decisions doesn’t seem to make sense either. We would need something in between, probably.

The Planktos announcement also mentions planting trees as another of their efforts to reduce the climate problem, but those of you who read the news may have noticed a surprising new development recently: the claim that while tropical trees help reduce global warming, trees in northern areas make it worse. And that’s where Planktos is planting. I’m no expert on global warming, but maybe Planktos isn’t either. —Christine

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  1. alan B. Shalleck May 4, 2007 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Christine… I’m a little surprised that you want to shut down Planktos. Conceivably this is a good solution provided it doesn’t generate long term problems. If you know something about Earth history, you will find parallels in the Planktos design to what actually happened here many millions of years ago where in sea creatures absorbed the once abundant CO2 in the atmosphere precipitation as CACO2 to the sea bed. Many chalk layers were created exactly by the Planktos suggested process. So I would have expected such an august organization as the Foresight Group to call for strict tests and beta regions for 3-5 year periods to assess and quantify all the reactions occurring, good and bad. Then to have an assessment process before complete deployment. Let’s test, and evaluate, rather than condemn and censer. To me, all processes that lower global warming in theory should be examined and tested. Open societies demand that.


  2. Steve Kerry May 4, 2007 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I’ve been studying and writing about Planktos for the past 18 months or so. In my view the ETC group press release is pretty bad…full of emotional alarmism and scientific inaccuracies. They are essentially presenting a ideological case, not a scientific or fact-based case.

    For example, regarding nano, it is my understanding that Planktos is studying Hematite…which is essentially finely-ground iron oxide, which one can find flowing into the oceans from rivers all over the world. Nothing even remotely dangerous about it. Note also that dozens of other academic institutions have done similar work over 15 years, Planktos is following.

    Check out my Carbon Sequestration News blog for a realistic view. I basically think that Planktos should do their study, but they should be watched carefully to ensure scientific validity.

    Thanks for the good reporting…

  3. Christine Peterson May 4, 2007 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Hi Alan — It sounds like you are saying that more testing is needed. I agree. But I think one would need more people involved than just one company.

    Hi Steve — If Planktos is just doing scientific research of a kind that has been done before by others, that doesn’t sound like a problem. But again, one would want to see broader-based collaboration. It makes me nervous to have one company making such decisions on their own. Who should decide what gets dumped in the ocean? I’m not sure, but probably not one company. Your views welcome!

    Thanks to both of you for commenting. –CP

  4. Tina M. May 5, 2007 at 2:43 am - Reply

    Restoration ecology (and its companion science conservation biology) has a decades-long history of contributing improved environmental quality on land — reclaiming wetlands to support biodiversity and water quality goals, expanding populations of rare or endangered species, returning watersheds to near-pristine conditions. The methods are based on applying key concepts that mirror ecosystem structure & function. I don’t see any reason in principle that these same methods can’t be applied in the ocean where Planktos will be working.

    Should the ocean be a target for restoration? If you look into the issues you’ll discover that declines of ocean water quality and ecosystem integrity are of a global scale too. And maybe these problems have the same implications as climate change. The two issues are clearly related.

    Loss of pelagic ocean plankton is an alarming idea to confront. Whole regions of the world’s surface seem to be facing ‘desertification’ because of changing land use patterns, shifting currents & winds. Returning nutrients like iron to small patches of the ocean — and carefully measuring the results — seems to be one way we can address the problem. Otherwise, what is our alternative?

    The Planktos proposal seems to have been mislabeled. It seems to be more about restoration ecology than geoengineering.

  5. Alex May 6, 2007 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    One of the somewhat unforeseen problems with promoting plankton blooms the way Planktos intends to is that not all of the microorganisms so encouraged are completely benign. Some of them release toxic domoic acid, which kills sea animals and actually gets into our food supply and poisons us, too. Until I read the article I linked to above, I thought that what Planktos is doing is a great idea, but now I’m not so sure.

  6. david kubiak May 8, 2007 at 8:57 am - Reply

    As a Planktos member, would like to respond to Alex’s concern: As far as we can judge from the lit we’ve seen on pelagic (open ocean) plankton, dangerous blooms have rarely been reported. Nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton like trichodesmium do secrete some nasty molecules like monarch butterflies to discourage predators, but the ammonium they generate also nourishes many other plankton species so the overall biological effect is quite positive. Darwin even remarks on the effect in his Beagle voyage journal: “The line where the red [trichodesmium bloom] and blue water joined was distinctly defined. The weather for some days previously had been calm, and the ocean abounded, to an unusual degree, with living creatures.”

    In any case, the two main types of harmful algal blooms (HAB) that humans are familiar with are largely coastal shelf phenomena, like the red/brown tides of cyanobacteria, microflagellates, and dinoflagellates which secrete neurotoxins that can seriously disable or kill mammals (including us); and the river mouth “dead zone” blooms that are caused by industrial pollution and agro-chemical run-off. These deadly eutrophic blooms are sort of like the Al Qaeda of the plankton world, a nasty micro-minority that we ourselves artificially created with really stupid shortsighted policies, yet whose lethal activities give a bad name to all their benign productive brethren around the world.

    So considering this and the fact that none of the previous 10 international ocean iron seeding trials reported any toxic effects at all, we are not expecting any harmful reactions whatever in the open ocean. Nevertheless, we will be seeding these test blooms far out to sea in areas where they cannot drift to land, tracking speciation throughout their evolution, and monitoring all their biological effects. And since each of our six projected blooms will only be 2~3% the size of most wind-seeded pelagic blooms (and less than 0.003% of the ocean surface), and last 4~6 months at best, we are talking about very limited pilot project scale events.

  7. Tina M. May 10, 2007 at 12:41 am - Reply

    Alex, if plankton did what you suggested they do, how could there be productive mid-ocean ecosystems? Why would plankton blooms evolve a mechanism that would be self defeating? Based on what I read, all Planktos is trying to do is return one single nutrient to open ocean waters.

    I sometimes add a little Miracle Grow to my garden, restoring missing nutrients to the soil, like Planktos seems to be proposing to do. I haven’t yet seen anything other than positive results that benefit every living thing.

    I suppose we could speculate about potential problems with EVERY restoration effort. But why look at things so negatively, when the ocean is in deep trouble and so much depends on making an effort to fix the problem? Let’s give Planktos a chance to show us that this might actually be a good thing.

    Tina M.

  8. Phillip Huggan May 15, 2007 at 7:12 am - Reply

    The goal here isn’t to restore oceans or anything like that, it is to sequester Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I wish Planktos the best of luck, but from what I remember reading two previous experiments failed (didn’t bloom the right kind of plankton) and one was inconclusive.

    For the record, an ancillary effect of the United Nations’s Montreal Protocol (to preserve the Ozone Layer) was that it bought the world another decade or so to develop Global Warming mitigation technologies, deflating this cost to taxpayers and (probably) saving hundreds of thousands of lives and preventing tens of millions of refugees from coming into being. The United Nations’s Kyoto Protocol, if implemented, will buy the world decades more.

    In fact, the single greatest obstacle to addressing Global Warming, the #1 extinction threat facing humanity has been the unilateral actions of the present United States government, and the corporate (oil) interests they serve. This is hardly a blanket statement against the US as the world was only 800 votes or a single Nader statement away from seeing the might of America solve this extinction threat rather than exacerbate it. In any event it is never a good thing to elect horse-breeders, baseball owners, oil executives and PNAC bible-thumpers into powerful political positions. The world made it through the Cold War by luck; be nice not to have to roll the dice again.

  9. DeborahRubin September 9, 2007 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    David Kubiak, How did Planktos obtain permission to pursue this venture? Did it have to be approved or peer-reviewed by any agency? Your companies website lists Planktos as a for profit company, seeking to sell carbon credits; how will you determine the amount of credits you create if you are successful? How large is your iron release compared to the previous 10? Are your iron pieces nano size?
    I believe there is too much risk at this point as there is no way to determine the tipping point of an iron release if it is indeed larger than previous releases. We know different quantities of any nutrient will have different effects, some helpful, some negligible, some toxic. We have learned from previous interferences with Nature that unforeseeable repercussions are often difficult or impossible to further remediate and a new problematic situation is the enduring result. I truly believe it is irresponsible and almost unbelievable that a private entitiy such as yours should deem themselves this right and that no regulating body is stopping you.
    Is the mission a go. Is the September departure the beginning of this venture, or preliminary data collection? As a global citizen with a vested interest in the future, I would appreciate some specific answers. Any info you have to offer would be greatly appreciated.

  10. DeborahRubin September 20, 2007 at 7:20 am - Reply

    I found this article in Nature and wonder if there are any comments:

    Nature 407, 695-702 (12 October 2000) | doi:10.1038/35037500; Received 6 January 2000; Accepted 4 September 2000

    A mesoscale phytoplankton bloom in the polar Southern Ocean stimulated by iron fertilization
    Philip W. Boyd1, Andrew J. Watson2, Cliff S. Law3, Edward R. Abraham4, Thomas Trull5, Rob Murdoch4, Dorothee C. E. Bakker2, Andrew R. Bowie6,3, K. O. Buesseler7, Hoe Chang4, Matthew Charette7, Peter Croot8, Ken Downing4, Russell Frew9, Mark Gall10, Mark Hadfield4, Julie Hall11, Mike Harvey4, Greg Jameson3, Julie LaRoche12, Malcolm Liddicoat3, Roger Ling3, Maria T. Maldonado13,14, R. Michael McKay15, Scott Nodder4, Stu Pickmere11, Rick Pridmore11, Steve Rintoul16, Karl Safi11, Philip Sutton4, Robert Strzepek17, Kim Tanneberger2, Suzanne Turner2, Anya Waite18 and John Zeldis10

    National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography, Department of Chemistry, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
    School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK;
    Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Prospect Place, The Hoe, Plymouth, Devon PL1 3DH , UK;
    National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, Greta Point, PO Box 14-901, Wellington, New Zealand ;
    Antarctic Co-operative Research Centre, University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-80, Hobart, Tasmania, 7001, Australia;
    Department of Environmental Sciences,University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK;
    Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry MS25, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA;
    Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), Department of Marine Chemistry and Geology, Postbus 59, 1790 AB Den Burg – Texel, The Netherlands;
    Department of Chemistry, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand;
    National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, Christchurch , PO Box 8602, Christchurch, New Zealand ;
    National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, Hamilton , Box 11-115, Hamilton, New Zealand ;
    Institut fuer Meereskunde, Universitaet Kiel, Duesternbrooker Weg 20 D-24105 Kiel, Germany;
    Biology Department, McGill University, 1205 Avenue, Dr. Penfield, Montreal, PQ H2T 2V8, Canada;
    Department of Biological Sciences, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403, USA;
    CSIRO Division of Marine Research, GPO Box 1538, Hobart, Tasmania, 7001, Australia;
    University of British Columbia, Departments of Botany and Oceanography, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6T 1Z4;
    Centre for Water Research, Department of Environmental Engineering, University of Western Australia, Nedlands 6907, Western Australia, Australia.
    Present address: School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.
    Correspondence to: Philip W. Boyd1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to P.W.B. (e-mail: Email:

    Top of pageAbstractChanges in iron supply to oceanic plankton are thought to have a significant effect on concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide by altering rates of carbon sequestration, a theory known as the ‘iron hypothesis’. For this reason, it is important to understand the response of pelagic biota to increased iron supply. Here we report the results of a mesoscale iron fertilization experiment in the polar Southern Ocean, where the potential to sequester iron-elevated algal carbon is probably greatest. Increased iron supply led to elevated phytoplankton biomass and rates of photosynthesis in surface waters, causing a large drawdown of carbon dioxide and macronutrients, and elevated dimethyl sulphide levels after 13 days. This drawdown was mostly due to the proliferation of diatom stocks. But downward export of biogenic carbon was not increased. Moreover, satellite observations of this massive bloom 30 days later, suggest that a sufficient proportion of the added iron was retained in surface waters. Our findings demonstrate that iron supply controls phytoplankton growth and community composition during summer in these polar Southern Ocean waters, but the fate of algal carbon remains unknown and depends on the interplay between the processes controlling export, remineralisation and timescales of water mass subduction.

  11. Roy L. September 30, 2007 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    Alan Shalleck’s comments on May 4th make the most sense of all the comments I read. The proposed test area is so small that it couldn’t cause any real harm. On the other hand, many people (including academics) would prefer to STUDY IT TO DEATH before actually trying it. It just might work (and greatly expand the first step in the food chain in the oceans – plankton, as well). To drag out the small scale testing process might be beneficial for academics who want grants or to make a career out of such studies, but the successful limited small scale tests already done certainly seems to warrent this experiment. To expect such a political entity as the United Nations to act in a timely fashion is ludicrous.

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