Other scientists are skeptical. In 2009 a group of ocean scientists explicitly called for abandoning iron fertilization efforts in an editorial in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) "Determining the local effects of iron fertilization against the background of natural variations is difficult, and impacts on fisheries, ocean biota and carbon cycling harder still," wrote members of the In-Situ Iron Studies Consortium—an international group of scientists studying such ocean fertilization—in a letter to the Guardian newspaper, which first reported on the Haida experiment. "I am disturbed and disappointed as this will make legitimate, transparent [ocean iron fertilization] experiments more difficult," Smetacek says.
HSRC's George has a long history of attempting to commercialize such iron fertilization, most notoriously via the company known as Planktos, which went bankrupt in 2008. The business case is to sell the CO2 declines generated by such plankton blooms via an international or national market for such emissions reductions.
The international community has cautioned against such ocean fertilization both in the 1972 London Convention and Protocol on preventing of marine pollution and in the consensus decision of the Ninth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, although those nonbinding agreements apply only to national governments. The Ocean Pearl sailed under the flag of the Old Masset Village Council, a part of the Haida First Nations.
Whereas this experiment might shed light on whether or not iron fertilization can hope to draw down atmospheric levels of CO2, it hardly amounts to a long-term planetary scale change—the definition of geoengineering according to the U.K.'s Royal Society. That is both George's hope and contention, rejecting the term geoengineering as a smear word intended to discredit this ocean restoration experiment. "I don't think we should build artificial forests out of concrete with concentrated lye solutions dribbling over the leaf area to absorb CO2," he argues. "I think we should grow real trees."
Growing microscopic "trees" in the ocean may not be without unintended consequences, however. A plankton bloom can spur a bloom in the bacteria that serve to decompose tiny oceanic corpses. These bacteria can rapidly consume all the available oxygen in a given region of water, giving off carbon dioxide as they do so and creating a temporary dead zone. But such areas are not completely dead. Instead, they provide the ideal conditions for the growth of yet other bacteria that in turn produce more potent greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane.