Geoengineering with Iron Fertilization

by on November 4, 2009 at 7:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

As even their critics admit, Levitt and Dubner have performed a useful service in drawing greater popular attention to geoengineering.  Garden hoses to the sky,however, are not the only approach.  Iron fertilization is simpler, cheaper and much more easily testable. 

Most people are aware that CO2 and temperature are positively correlated in the long historical record but fewer people know that iron dust correlates negatively on the same scale – that is, temperature and CO2 levels are low when iron-dust is high.  The graph illustrates.

Ice-core-info_550_59769 

The basic mechanism that appears to drive the association between low temperature, low CO2 and high iron-dust levels is that iron-rich dust sometimes sweeps off the continents into the oceans where it creates a plankton bloom.  Phytoplankton take up CO2 in order to grow and as they die and produce fecal matter (I kid you not) carbon sinks to the lower depths or bottom of the ocean where it may remain for 100 to a 1000 or to even to millions of years (in the latter case eventually becoming oil).

A big advantage of iron fertilization as a way of reducing CO2 is that this process occurs naturally all the time and thus may be studied.  It is also possible to run experiments.  Indeed a dozen small-scale experiments over the past decade have already been run with all showing that iron fertilization does create phytoplankton blooms and some showing carbon sequestration.  Interestingly, private firms looking for future carbon offset sources are driving much of the research into iron fertilization.

Of course, all the usual caveats about uncertainty and unintended consequences apply.  Oceanus, the magazine of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has an excellent issue on this topic.

1 Jean November 4, 2009 at 8:12 am

Careful! You know what happens to heretics………

2 Luis Enrique November 4, 2009 at 8:48 am

get with the program Alex, it’s all about cheap desalination, drip irrigation and biochar.

oops

3 jdm November 4, 2009 at 8:59 am

See this highly critical article from a recent issue of Nature.

Opinion

Nature 461, 347-348 (17 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461347a;

Published online 16 September 2009

Ocean fertilization: time to move on

Aaron Strong1, Sallie Chisholm2, Charles Miller3 & John Cullen4
Top of page
Abstract

Adding iron to the ocean is not an effective way to fight climate change, and we don’t need further research to establish that, say Aaron Strong, Sallie Chisholm, Charles Miller and John Cullen.

(gated)
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7262/full/461347a.html

4 City Comforts November 4, 2009 at 9:47 am

“Of course, all the usual caveats about uncertainty and unintended consequences apply.”

Somehow these words ring a bit hollow. I sense enthusiasm for a techno-gimmick.

5 Jim O'Toole November 4, 2009 at 10:37 am

Carbon ppm tends to lag temperature changes by about 800 years. This is a point of contention in the climate science community: since the historic record suggests that temperature increases before carbon content in the atmosphere increases, and temperature dips before carbon content dips, it would appear that temperature drives carbon content in the atmosphere, and what’s left to debate is
A)if they are directly related, how much of a positive feedback does the carbon content introduce for temperature.
B)if they are not directly related, what is the common forcing mechanism that drives them both.
Either way, the fact that carbon lags temperature is why Gore was criticized for presenting the two graphs similarly in An Inconvenient Truth, without the disclaimer of the 800 year lag. It made it seem to the audience that carbon increased in tandem with temperature and therefore directly drove it.

6 curious November 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

see also the results of this iron fertilization experiment from this year. basically, the phytoplankton blooms that were supposed to suck up CO2 were promptly consumed by zooplankton, so very little carbon was actually sequestered.
http://www.awi.de/en/news/press_releases/detail/item/lohafex_provides_new_insights_on_plankton_ecology_only_small_amounts_of_atmospheric_carbon_dioxide/

net result: “Based on current knowledge, the Alfred Wegener Institute opposes large-scale iron fertilisation with the aim to reduce CO2 to regulate the climate.”

7 Andrew November 4, 2009 at 11:11 am

Have to put in my obligatory “wtf does that axes label mean?” and remind people that the purpose of graphs is to illustrate.

8 mulp November 4, 2009 at 11:20 am

Well, before Republicans support testing this, the will need a definitive statement from the EPA that this is cost effective as well as a complete analysis by the EPA of the economic impact of the cost of mitigating climate change by the massively expensive spreading of iron dust in the oceans, the massive job losses that will result, and the much higher cost of steel as the iron ore is diverted from steel making.

Look, let’s be clear, spending money to pay people to build sustainable energy capital or paying people to spread iron ore to mitigate unsustainable energy policies just results in job losses because higher taxes always kills jobs, because workers paid by taxes are not real jobs.

Look, the record of growth from tax cuts is clear – the economy today is far superior today now that the IRS takes only 14.9% of GDP than in 1999 when it took over 20% of GDP. Increasing taxes like was done in 1982, 83, 84, 85, 86, or in 1990, 91, 93 just kill economic and jobs growth as the depressions of the 80s and 90s demonstrates.

Look, unless the iron dust is a waste hat is more cheaply dumped in the oceans, this is no more acceptable to those opposing energy sustainability, and is merely just a way of kicking the problem down the road, a conservative tactic that has resulted in the world economy today.

Proposing the dumping of garbage and toxic waste in the rivers as a means of mitigating burning fossil fuels will get instant conservative support, but you won’t get any conservative support for taxes to pay for dumping iron dust, nor even support for government funding for research.

9 Joe November 4, 2009 at 11:32 am

Why not view global warming as we view many other complex systems here are the options:
1) Global Warming Not That Bad–We do nothing–Not a bad outcome
2) Global Warming Not That Bad–We do something–Not a bad outcome (could argue cleaner air/water/better outcome)
3) Global Warming Bad—We do nothing—Oh No…
4) Global warming Bad—We do something—-Yeah!!!

The only disaster is doing nothing, so best approach is to do something…

10 Glen Raphael November 4, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Joe: “we do something” is too vague. Your calculation seem to implicitly assume that the “we do something” option under consideration doesn’t (a) make the problem *worse*, (b) cause new problems that are worse than the original problem, or (c) have no effect.

In truth we have many different “somethings” we might consider doing, most of which don’t pass any reasonable cost/benefit analysis. In particular, de-carbonizing the world economy at a cost of reducing economic growth even by a very small amount is probably not a good tradeoff because economic growth saves lives and improves our ability to address *every* possible future threat, not just the one under consideration.

So if we have to do “something”, some form of geoengineering might be a good “something” to do.

11 Joe November 4, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Glen,

I think geoengineering is a cool idea, and like anything else it will have its benefits and costs (mot of teh costs of this approach are hard to dollarize). Right now the costs of doing this seem small, but what are the long term consequences of pumping our air full of sulfur or iron dust.

We do know that cutting our CO2 emmisions would be a plus, but it to has a cost that we say we are not willing to pay. Tough Choices Abound. I think we are too scared as a planet to do anything so we are actually screwed. I hope I am wrong.

12 Floccina November 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

It seems to me that biochar would be better.

13 chlorine gas November 4, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Most commentators underestimate how bad ineffective enviro policy can be. Hence the soundness of trying out different techniques before focusing on large taxes and cap and trade which destroy gnp growth.

A good example of how European green policy can go wrong is their encouragement of palm oil. By all accounts it was a disaster with up to 1400m tons of CO2 per annum being spewed into the atmosphere. This is comparable to some of the worst national car pollution and is the byproduct of a single green policy that the EU now admits is a disaster.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/apr/04/energy.indonesia
Are we so sure cap and trade won’t lead to other such problems?

14 VangelV November 4, 2009 at 7:38 pm

“Carbon ppm tends to lag temperature changes by about 800 years. This is a point of contention in the climate science community: since the historic record suggests that temperature increases before carbon content in the atmosphere increases, and temperature dips before carbon content dips, it would appear that temperature drives carbon content in the atmosphere, and what’s left to debate is
A)if they are directly related, how much of a positive feedback does the carbon content introduce for temperature.”

The satellite observations suggest that the feedback is negative. If the feedback were what the IPCC suggests we would have had a runaway warming event when CO2 content was 20 times higher the current concentration. Lindzen and Choi have a paper on this but I believe that there is a dispute about subtracting the “zero feedback” OLR from the total radiation when calculating the feedback but even if that were true there is no support for the IPCC position as the results go from a large negative feedback to a smaller one.

“B)if they are not directly related, what is the common forcing mechanism that drives them both.”

That is simple. It is the sun’s activity. As the change is solar activity effects the amount of radiation that makes it to the surface the temperature of the oceans change slowly. The effect is what anyone who has seen the solubility curves would expect; a warming ocean means more CO2 is released to the atmosphere while a cooling ocean means more is absorbed from the atmosphere.

http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/co2-h2o_solubility.png

“Either way, the fact that carbon lags temperature is why Gore was criticized for presenting the two graphs similarly in An Inconvenient Truth, without the disclaimer of the 800 year lag. It made it seem to the audience that carbon increased in tandem with temperature and therefore directly drove it.”

Gore knew but chose to misdirect by telling viewers that the relationship is more complicated. That said, he keeps using the discredited hockey stick and makes claims about sea levels that nobody who knows anything about the subject believes.

15 Harald Korneliussen November 5, 2009 at 5:05 am

Well, at least it removes CO2 from the atmosphere, which means that it passes the stink test. L&D’s preferred geoengineering scheme doesn’t, which means it’s more like the giant ice cube in the ocean of Futurama (“Thus solving the problem once and for all!”).

16 Barkley Rosser November 5, 2009 at 3:00 pm

VangelIV,

Why is it that people get so pompous when they are misrepresenting things?

Yes, the lag is as you say in geological time records before humans were pumping carbon into the
atmosphere at rates to overwhelm the natural processes occuring millions of years ago. In the
historical record, the lag is the other way around, CO2 up, temperature up afterwards. You are
just playing silly games, Vangel

17 DBL November 5, 2009 at 7:15 pm

MULP – I think your numbers are off. According to Wikipedia, taxes in the US are approximately 28% of GDP, not 14.9%. Even if you just look at federal taxes, they have remained pretty constant at about 19.5% of GDP over the past twenty years. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121124460502305693.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries

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