Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ocean Fertilization is Risky Business

It seems that the numerous lessons learned over the years about the riskiness of human attempts to re-engineer the natural environment by introducing new species or substances have not yet sunk in for some people. Last week, ASOC learned of plans by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research of Germany and the National Institute of Oceanography of India to conduct a large-scale ocean fertilization experiment in the Southern Ocean.

Ocean fertilization is proposed as a way to combat global warming. During fertilization, the ocean is seeded with large amounts of something that would engender the growth of large amounts of phytoplankton, which would absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, die quickly, and then sink to the ocean floor, essentially sequestering large amounts of carbon. For this experiment, the scientists would use iron sulfate to "fertilize" approximately 300 square kilometers of ocean.

However, there is considerable international opposition to the widespread use of these projects. Not only has the Convention on Biological Diversity urged signatories to delay implementation of ocean fertilization until their is clear scientific evidence in their favor, but the London Convention and the London Protocol, which concern marine dumping, have also urged that scientific projects be assessed on a case-by-case basis until a comprehensive framework could be developed. While the researchers involved in the current project have asserted that their experiment does not violate the CBD, they do not appear to have undertaken any sort of environmental impact assessment. Nor have the governments of Germany or India undertaken any review.

In fact, the German Environment Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who chaired the CBD conference that passed the resolution on fertilization, has asked the Science Ministry to withdraw its support of the project. The Science Ministry has apparently asked the researchers to halt their experiment pending review - not a moment too soon, as the ship carrying the iron sulfate is already en route to the Southern Ocean.

A 2007 study cast doubt on the scientific basis for ocean fertilization. Given that the implications on ecosystems or marine organisms are also unclear, it seems that we need to hold off on interfering with the oceans until we better understand what could happen when we do so.

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