Geoengineering schemes likely to backfire

The more you learn about geoengineering the less it makes sense. The question is: can we really save the planet by ruining it?

Climate Progress

Can we save the planet by ruining it (even more)?

Argonne National Laboratory reports that “A new study on the feeding habits of ocean microbes calls into question the potential use of algal blooms to trap carbon dioxide and offset rising global levels.”

Four years ago, the journal Nature published a piece arguing that “fertilising the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton blooms, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and export carbon to the deep sea – should be abandoned.”

Now Argonne Lab reports so-called iron fertilisation “may have only a short-lived environmental benefit. And, the process may actually reduce over the long-term how much CO2 the ocean can trap.”

The more you know about geoengineering, the less sense it makes (see Science: “Optimism about a geoengineered ‘easy way out’ should be tempered by examination of currently observed climate changes”). The most ‘plausible’ approach, massive aerosol injection, has potentially catastrophic impacts of its own and can’t possibly substitute for the most aggressive mitigation – see here. And for the deniers, geoengineering is mostly just a ploy – see British coal industry flack pushes geoengineering “ploy” to give politicians “viable reason to do nothing” about global warming.

Geoengineering is a problem in search of a problem.

As the New York Times reported in 2011:

At the influential blog Climate Progress, Joe Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, has made a similar point, likening geoengineering to a dangerous course of chemotherapy and radiation to treat a condition curable through diet and exercise – or, in this case, emissions reduction.

You can find my previous writings on geoengineering here. See in particular Martin Bunzl on “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix.”

Geoengineering is a ‘smoke and mirrors solution’, though most people understand that the ‘mirrors’ strategy is prohibitively expensive and impractical. One of the few remaining non-aerosol strategies still taken seriously by some is ocean fertilisation. But it is no better than the rest.

As the 2009 Nature piece explained:

The intended effect of ocean iron fertilisation for geoengineering is to significantly disrupt marine ecosystems. The explicit goal is to stimulate blooms of relatively large phytoplankton that are usually not abundant, because carbon produced by such species is more likely to sink eventually to the deep ocean. This shift at the base of the food web would propagate throughout the ocean ecosystem in unpredictable ways.

Moreover, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus would sink along with the carbon, altering biogeochemical and ecological relationships throughout the system. Some models predict that ocean fertilisation on a global scale would result in large regions of the ocean being starved of oxygen, dramatically affecting marine organisms from microbes to fish. Ecological disruption is the very mechanism by which iron fertilisation would sequester carbon.

Argonne’s study finds another problem – ocean iron fertilisation may have no positive climate impact and might even make things worse:

These blooms contain iron-eating microscopic phytoplankton that absorb CO2 from the air through the process of photosynthesis and provide nutrients for marine life. But one type of phytoplankton, a diatom, is using more iron that it needs for photosynthesis and storing the extra in its silica skeletons and shells, according to an X-ray analysis of phytoplankton conducted at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. This reduces the amount of iron left over to support the carbon-eating plankton….

Rather than feed the growth of extra plankton, triggering algal blooms, the iron fertilization may instead stimulate the gluttonous diatoms to take up even more iron to build larger shells. When the shells get large enough, they sink to the ocean floor, sequestering the iron and starving off the diatom’s plankton peers.

Over time, this reduction in the amount of iron in surface waters could trigger the growth of microbial populations that require less iron for nutrients, reducing the amount of phytoplankton blooms available to take in CO2 and to feed marine life.

If only there were a way to prevent catastrophic global warming that didn’t risk making things worse... 

This article was originally published by Climate Progress. Republished with permission.