In the eye of a storm


A field experiment by Californian businessman Russ George has raised a furore among scientists and environmentalists who fear such ventures could put the planet at risk, writes Henry Fountain.

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

The entrepreneur, whose foray only came to light recently, even duped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, which lent him ocean-monitoring buoys for the project.

Canada’s environment ministry says it is investigating the experiment, which was carried out with no government or scientific oversight. A spokesman said the ministry had warned the venture in advance that its plan would violate international agreements.

Marine scientists and other experts have assailed the experiment as unscientific, irresponsible and probably in violation of those agreements, which are intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change. While the environmental impact of the foray could well prove minimal, scientists said, it raises the spectre of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that could eventually put the planet at risk.

Calling it the most “state-of-the-art study that’s ever been done,” the entrepreneur, Russ George, said his team scattered the iron dust several hundred miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, in exchange for $2.5 million from a native Canadian group. The iron spawned the growth of enormous amounts of plankton, he said.

As a result, the project may meet its top goal of aiding the recovery of the local salmon fishery for the native Haida, said George. Iron fertilisation is contentious because it is associated with geoengineering, a set of proposed strategies for counteracting global warming through the deliberate manipulation of the environment.

Many experts have argued that scientists should be researching geoengineering techniques like spewing compounds into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight or using sophisticated machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air to combat rising temperatures. But because tampering with the environment is risky, they say, any experiment must be carried out responsibly and transparently, with involvement by the scientific community and proper governance.

“Geoengineering is extremely controversial,” said Andrew Parker, a fellow at the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “There is a need to protect the environment while making sure safe and legitimate research can go ahead,” he added. Plankton absorbs carbon dioxide and settles deep in the ocean when it dies, sequestering carbon. The Haida had hoped that by permanently burying carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas, they could sell the carbon offset credits to companies and make money.

Mark L Wells, a marine scientist at the University of Maine, said that what George’s team did “could be described as ocean dumping.” Noting that plankton blooms like those that the team observed occur regularly in the region, Wells said it would be difficult for George to demonstrate what impact the iron had on the plankton. Wells said it was “extraordinarily unlikely” that George could prove that the experiment met the project’s goal of permanent removal of some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledged that it had provided equipment for the project, in this case 20 instrument-laden buoys that drift in the ocean for a year or more and measure water temperature, salinity and other characteristics. Such buoys are often sent out on what the agency calls “vessels of opportunity,” and the data they provide, uploaded to satellites, is publicly available. But a spokesman said the agency had been “misled” by the group, which “did not disclose that it was going to discharge material into the ocean.”

Parker said it appeared that the project had contravened two international agreements on geoengineering, the London Convention on the dumping of wastes at sea and a moratorium declared by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as well as a set of principles developed at Oxford University on transparency, regulation and the need for public participation.

George denied that his experiment was related to geoengineering and said that 100 tons was a negligible amount of iron compared to what naturally enters the oceans. “This is a community trying to maintain its livelihood,” he said of the Haida. He said his team had collected a “golden mountain” of data on the plankton bloom.

“This is the most intensively state-of-the-art study that’s ever been done,” said George, who described himself as chief scientist on the project and said he has training as a plant ecologist. He refused to name any of the other scientists on the team. Scientists who have been involved with sanctioned iron fertilisation experiments disputed George’s assertion about the quality of his experiment, saying that it was roughly 10 times bigger than any other but that the ship used a fishing boat and the science team was clearly insufficient.

Legitimate research?

Victor Smetacek, an oceanographer with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany who recently published an analysis of the last sanctioned experiment, which took place in 2009 in the Southern Ocean, said George’s project would give a black eye to legitimate research.

“This kind of behaviour is disastrous,” he said, describing George, with whom he had brief contact more than five years ago, as a “messing around, bumbling guy.” George, who lives in Northern California, was previously in the public eye when, as chief executive of a company called Planktos, he proposed a similar iron-fertilisation project in the equatorial Pacific west of the Galapagos Islands. Its purpose was the sale of carbon offsets.

Under cap-and-trade programmes in various countries, polluters can offset their emissions of greenhouse gases by buying credits from projects that store carbon or otherwise mitigate global warming.

The project was cancelled in 2008 after what his company called a “disinformation campaign” by environmentalists and others made it impossible to attract investors. George said that during that period he was contacted by the Old Massett Village Council, one of two Haida groups on Haida Gwaii, about “wanting to do something about their fish,” which had suffered population declines.

But John Disney, the council’s economic development director, said he had worked with George on other projects before that, including a proposal to generate carbon credits by replacing alder forests on the islands with conifers.

But that project never came to fruition. Disney defended the iron sprinkling project, saying that it had been approved by Old Massett’s 750 villagers and that it had been cleared by the council’s lawyers. He said at least seven Canadian government agencies were aware of the project.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that a spokesman for Canada’s environment minister had said that the salmon group was twice warned in advance as its plan violated international agreements that Canada has signed which would prohibit an iron-seeding project with a commercial element.

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