Several times over the past century, scientists and environmental engineers have proposed spreading slurries of dissolved iron into the oceans in order to “fertilize” the waters and promote vast blooms of marine plants (phytoplankton). Phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide as they grow, and this growth can be stimulated in certain ocean basins by the addition of iron, a necessary micronutrient.
Though common on land, dissolved iron is often rare in the ocean. Some researchers and commercial interests have recently proposed to provide that missing nutrient on a large scale in order to create artificial blooms. Theory holds that if you make such blooms large enough, you could remove excess carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and carry it down into the deep ocean as organic matter (such as fecal pellets and dead plankton) sinks, thereby reducing the impact of greenhouse gases and global warming.
On September 26-27, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will host an international, interdisciplinary conference on the proposed “iron fertilization” of the ocean as a means to combat rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“There are many critical questions that require both better scientific understanding and an improved legal, economic, and political framework before iron fertilization can be considered either effective or appropriate,” said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department and a participant in two iron fertilization experiments at sea. “The time is right to bring scientists, policymakers, and commercial interests together to inform each other and the public.”
Scientists took a serious interest in the idea in the late 1980s after oceanographer John Martin famously told colleagues: “Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age.” Iron fertilization has since been tested in at least a dozen experiments around the world.
The results have varied, but in general, iron fertilizers have been shown to promote plant growth in surface waters. However, many researchers remain skeptical about whether the process removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the long term or just for a fleeting time. Ecological impacts from long-term, large-scale fertilization are also a concern.
The purpose of the Woods Hole conference is to bring researchers, policymakers, industrial interests, regulators, and environmentalists together to share their scientific observations and discuss the range of issues involved in altering the chemistry of the ocean. It is not intended as forum or referendum for specific projects and ventures.
In 20 hours of formal presentations and panel discussions over two days, participants will discuss:
- Efficacy: Can iron fertilization work?
- Research: What do we already know, and what could future studies, models, and experiments tell us?
- Consequence: What will be the intended and unintended impacts?
- Policy: What are the economic, social, and regulatory considerations?
The symposium—“Exploring Ocean Iron Fertilization: The Scientific, Economic, Legal, and Political Basis”-- is being hosted by Buesseler, Scott Doney, a senior scientist in the WHOI Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department, and Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist in the WHOI Marine Policy Center.
Support for the iron fertilization conference was provided by the Elisabeth and Henry Morss Jr. Colloquia Fund, the Cooperative Institute for Climate Research, the WHOI Marine Policy Center, the Ocean and Climate Change Institute, the Ocean Life Institute, and Woods Hole Sea Grant.
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