IRON BLOOM?: Satellite images may show the bloom Russ George and his colleagues created by adding iron sulfate and iron oxide to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia. Image: Courtesy of NASA MODIS AQUA
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This past July Russ George served as chief scientist on a cruise to fertilize the northeastern Pacific Ocean with iron—the latest in a long string of similar, and usually controversial, efforts he has led. He has been attempting to commercialize such ocean fertilization efforts for years, including setting up the failed company Planktos. In parallel, he has also been promoting plans to generate carbon credits for companies and governments, allowing them to emit greenhouse gases in exchange for replanting carbon dioxide-absorbing forests from Canada to Europe.
The ocean fertilization experiment is similar. The idea is that by providing missing nutrients, a plankton bloom can be created. Such a bloom sucks up CO2 as it grows, like plants on land, and then, potentially, buries that carbon at sea as the tiny corpses sink to the bottom. But at the same time, George is hoping the bloom will trickle up the food chain and feed salmon, restoring their historic abundance. Of course, if the bloom is eaten, then animal metabolism will reemit the CO2, sending it back to the atmosphere and defeating the purpose of reducing CO2 emissions, as prior scientific studies have shown.
George says he is convinced that iron fertilization can be a solution to global warming, and he's pitched the idea to everyone from the Haida people of British Columbia to would-be "seasteaders" looking for a business proposition for their floating cities. Given the controversy surrounding George's latest bid—which is billed as an attempt to restore salmon populations but also aims to earn saleable carbon credits—Scientific American spoke with him on October 19.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How did this Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. project start?
This is a village project. They started it, they own it, they run it. It's not the Russ George rogue geoengineering story.
You've seen the vile and vehement twisting of this story. You can probably imagine how I feel. I was the faith and trust and hopes and dreams of a village whose environment is dying, whose culture is dying because the salmon are dying. And now the world is saying they were duped.
So did the iron fertilization work?
We don't know. A really famous scientist once told me: "Russ, keep in mind: you don't know." The correct attitude is: "Data, speak to me." Do the work, get the data, let it speak to you and tell you what the facts might be. Don't assume you have this prescient knowledge of how everything is.
But we do know that in 2008 when 450 million sockeye salmon left the Fraser River, the expectation was that fewer than one million would return. More and more baby salmon go to sea and fewer and fewer adult salmon return. But in August 2008 a volcano dusted ash, and the northeastern Pacific Ocean turned into a massive plankton bloom. The plankton bloom was of larger proportion than what we did in the area. So 40 million fish came home instead of a million. That offered some hope.
There have been three volcanic events in the last 100 years paired with record sockeye salmon runs. That's pretty good data. Those fish don't do fishy science, they do good science. Their physical bodies are data, you can track where they've been because of the discrete isotopic characteristics of different parts of the ocean.