Topical waters

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Research published last month paints an increasingly gloomy picture of the accelerating rate of climate change, raising genuine fears that efforts to combat carbon emissions may already be too late to restrict seismic changes in the earth’s temperatures.

Compiled by a group of eminent scientists and published in the U.S. journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)the report suggests that greenhouse gases are rising at a faster rate now than they did in the 1990’s.

The scientists cite three main causes for this alarming rise; Growth in the world economy, increased fossil fuel emissions since 2000 and a decline in the efficiency of the ocean and land ‘sinks’ to absorb carbon emissions.

In the wake of this troubling new data about ocean carbon absorption, a range of geo-engineering solutions are being hotly debated in the scientific community and piloted by eco-businesses. The hope is that by intervening in the ocean’s eco-system we will be able to reverse or stabilize the rates of growth in global warming.

The oceans are natural ‘CO2 sinks’ (a reservoir that absorbs atmospheric carbon). Phytoplankton — microscopic organisms that congregate near the ocean surface – absorb atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis. At the end of their lifetime — usually only a few days — they fall to the ocean floor carrying with them the CO2.

Scientists have known for some time that large swathes of the earth’s oceans harbor extremely low densities of phytoplankton. These areas are known as HNLC (high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll) zones and are thought to be caused by a scarcity of iron.

This iron-deficiency theory was first postulated in the 1930’s by English scientist Joseph Hart.

But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the American oceanographer John Martin measured the iron content of the seawater in HNLC zones and found negligible amounts.

He argued that the sea gets it iron from dust swept into the sea from the land, and that wind currents weren’t carrying iron to HNLC areas. Martin tested his hypothesis in Antarctica and found that phytoplankton thrived in jars of seawater infused with iron.

Martin’s discoveries set in motion further research in this area and it was in the spirit of his work that a ship named Weatherbird II set sail for the tropical waters of the eastern Atlantic earlier this month.

Its mission is to carry out Martin’s experiment on a much grander scale, pouring iron ore into the ocean in an attempt to stimulate plankton growth and assess the wider effects on sea life.

The pilot study has been organized by Planktos, a Californian-based eco-restoration company.

“This really might be an incredible solution,” Planktos CEO Russ George told CNN.

“In climate change we talk about a tipping point, but in oceans and ocean life we are far over that tipping point,” he said.

George has been involved in the carbon credit business for over 30 years. He started a tree planting company in British Columbia and estimates that he has planted over a quarter of a billion trees in Canada alone.

A subsidiary company, KlimaFa Ltd is currently restoring forests in the European Union with over 100,000 hectares of land in Hungary being replenished.

It was when the Kyoto accord was first signed in 1997 that George started thinking of new ways to sell carbon credits and started researching iron fertilization. He is confident that it will be a success.

“20 years and 100-200 million dollars of public funds have identified this iron tonic solution as a way to restore the productivity of the ocean,” he said.

Yet Planktos is a constant target for groups who don’t buy into the idea of carbon offsets.