May 10, 2007 11:36 AM PDT

Seeding the ocean to capture carbon

Later this month, a crew from a company called Planktos will head for waters near the Galapagos Islands to see whether lowly plankton have a role in mitigating climate change.

The idea behind the venture is to create plankton "blooms," or large-scale growth, by seeding the ocean with iron, which stimulates plankton growth. As the plankton grows, it consumes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and removes it from the atmosphere.

Planktos is not the first to come up with the idea of capturing or sequestering carbon through plankton blooms. But the Foster City, Calif.-based company appears to be the first trying to commercialize ongoing research on the topic.

During the trip, the crew of about 16 will seed thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean with iron. After the growth phase, a percentage of that plankton will die and sink. Once the plankton are below 500 meters, they sequester the consumed carbon for centuries, said David Kubiak, director of communications for Planktos.

Image: Plankton bloom

"We're mostly concerned with plankton that get below 500 meters. It puts them in deep enough ocean currents that they are out of the atmosphere for centuries," he said. "Below 1,000 meters and we're talking millennia."

The iron fertilization process has been proposed and tested before. The challenge, said Kubiak, is to get accurate information on the biological activity that a bloom causes and to measure how much carbon will be displaced.

Planktos scientists will use sensors to track how far the plankton sinks and watch what reaction it will cause in other sea creatures, including zooplankton, krill and other plankton feeders.

The Planktos boat, the Weatherbird II, expects to be there between four to six months to observe an entire cycle of growth and decay, he said. Those who previously attempted to measure the effects of this iron fertilization haven't stayed long enough, Kubiak said.

Skepticism among environmentalists
Many global warming experts contend that finding methods to capture carbon dioxide are an important tool in addressing climate change.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, earlier this year called for heavy investments to capture and sequester carbon underground at coal-fired power plants. Other projects have proposed using offshore oil and gas wells.

Planktos employees argue that the plankton method can not only address part of the climate change problem but also replenish plankton, which are in decline.

Plankton levels worldwide have dropped off 10 percent since the 1970s. Bringing back that 10 percent will take between 3 billion and 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to Kubiak.

The funding mechanism behind the company is relatively novel as well.

The company plans to make money by selling the carbon credits it expects to gain by sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide, said Kubiak. A subsidiary, called KlimaFa, is pursuing the same business model through reforestation in Europe.

News of the effort has brought about deep skepticism from some environmentalists who say that geo-engineering on that scale will lead to unknown problems.

Others questioned whether iron fertilization will actually result in significant reductions in carbon or whether this method should qualify as viable carbon offsets.

Kubiak said that originally the founders of Planktos meant to pursue research projects but found a more receptive audience in the business world.

"All the (research) money is being soaked up by people who want to study, but not do anything themselves," he said.

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Plankton mostly gets eaten, so most of the CO2 that gets
converted to organic matter will fairly quickly get re-circulated
as the plankton eaters metabolize it. Whether this happens in a
week, a year or several centuries (and it will happen mostly
sooner rather than later), it does not represent a true carbon

The only geologically long-term sinks I know of from plankton
comes from diatoms, which create calcium carbonate shells.
Chalk beds are evidence of the truely long-term nature of this
sequestration. How much of a plankton bloom will consist of
the shells of diatoms? That is the proper measure of
effectiveness, not total biomass generated.

Conclusion: just another greenie hoax/marketing ploy.
Posted by Bill Hembree (12 comments )
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So, what are you against?
Have you read up on the subject? Do you have any insight to this test? Does it take money out of your pocket? Do you have a better idea?

Or are you just another "global warming is a fraud" type.
Posted by Marcus Westrup (630 comments )
Link Flag
I thought this also created large fish farms
I think that you can fertilize ocean in it's deserts, like this proposal, and harvest the fish that will feed on the plankton. It looks like if you can't make this fly with fishing, the Carbon argument is kinda weak. <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by knobsturner (46 comments )
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and the business model?
Yes, why don't they hype the fishing possibilities? The price of fish will only go up.
As for the carbon, it could also be a difficult business model to make a profit from, since there is nothing high-tech or patentable about the solution. If plankton blooming becomes an established source of carbon credits, the actual work will probably not be performed by american scientists in Darwinesque research vessels, but by the cheapest crews possible, in the cheapest ships possible, and using the cheapest iron available.
Posted by karlengblom (22 comments )
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Too scarey for me!
I am generally a "greenie", and certainly favor treating our home planet gently, but this idea really scares me. There are just way too many unknown side effects.
Posted by codesmith (11 comments )
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My hat is off to you.
I don't believe I've ever read a comment from someone who proclaims to be a "greenie" and then wishes for a cautious approach. My biggest objection to the Warming movement is the "act now and think later" approach. And you are correct, we do not know the ecological effect of artificially creating an excess link in the food chain of the wild oceans. I do know that it hasn't worked very well in the wild on land.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
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I agree with codesmith
"Scarey" certainly would come to mind for anyone such as myself that grew up in Florida and remembers the 'red tide' infestations. That was a type of phytoplankton whose negative consequences were production of a neurotoxin that can be absorbed in large quantities by shellfish, shrimp, and so on. Bad food for humans ...

The 'red tide' also released airborne particles, wafted by the wind shoreward, would cause asthma and other respiratory problems.

I've been a proto-greenie for years but always viewed the obsessive "we must do something now!" crowd with distrust. Panic, fear, and outright lies brought about the Great Cholesterol Myth which is only in recent years been re-examined. And aspartame was good for you until now, maybe it isn't ... and scores of other problems supported by scientific studies. Remember thalidomide? Well duh!

Only yesterday, I saw a story about a NASA scientific study on global warming: their computer model yields a far worse outcome than the UN report. Now the scientific experts are arguing with each other. Who do you believe?

I remember GW speculations by Isaac Asimov in 1960s articles. Some educated guesses by Lyall Watson in a 1984 book. The national magazines 35 years back reporting scientific studies suggesting global cooling was coming ...

Far as I know, the first computer model on metereology was Edward Lorentz's in 1961. He was surprised by unexpected results and thus modern chaos theory was born, kicking and screaming. And not initially accepted by 'conventional wisdom'. But inevitably, non-line equations and effects could not be swept under the rug.

Actually, the first scientific experiment that revealed 'chaos' was in 1890.

I saw the first article on Planktos two months or more ago; dumping 50 tons of iron oxide somewhere in the Pacific with stupendous results claimed. Curiously, that story vanished within a day. Even Google was silent on the subject for a time.

Not too long ago, I saw an article about a noxious plankton bloom somewhere off California. Coincidence? Who knows. One can't attempt an answer if the right question isn't even asked.

So, yeah, environmental concerns of all kinds are important. But, like the quip goes: [i]"No good deed goes unpunished."[/i]
Posted by NoVista (274 comments )
Link Flag
More mucking about ...
... is not the way to approach such a problem domain. We've proven many times that we don't have enough depth of knowledge with regard to how our environment works to be overtly tweaking it.

Trying to fix our mucking with the environment by mucking with the environment is not a smart deal. At all. It's just more of the same stupidity that's getting us into this problem in the first place.

Time to go hug a tree. :)
Posted by Trane Francks (936 comments )
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I'm not sure its just the oceans that are being fertilized here...
I'm a marine scientist that has worked in biotechnology development for the last 35+ years. Much of that time has been directly or indirectly involved in producing various species of marine algae. I don't consider myself an "environmentalist" - primarily because of all the illogical crap that label implies. I do believe that we have to be very careful in how we use the oceans. I believe that marine algae production development can produce a number of significant commercial product opportunities and that it can be accomplished without significant degradation of the environment or the oceans. However, in my opinion the way this carbon credit business model (and others) is set up - it has the potential of being a much better than average financial scam and will be bad for the environment and your wallets.

First - the company hopes to produce plankton blooms in the open ocean (one of the most uncontrollable and unpredictable environments on the planet) and then have the algae sink to the "desert" like ocean floor several thousand feet below the surface. Sound ok? I have a number of questions: Whose going to accurately measure the dead microscopic algal cells below 500 m and or the carbon at those open ocean floor depths to compute the carbon actually sequestered by the algae they fertilized? Are they going to put radio isotopes in tags in their fertilizer chemicals - I hope not? How will we know which algae responded to their fertilizer - especially if more than one company does this? Even in the open ocean there are zoo plankton that feed on this algae. They bloom with the availability of the algae. Increase the algae - increase the zoo plankton. By the way the zoo plankton produce lots of CO2 and so does the algae at night. Will their be a net amount of carbon sequestered over what has been produced by this process? That really hasn't been well demonstrated. The algae this company fertilizes may or may not ever reach the sea floor before its eaten by responding zoo plankton and caught up in the food chain. Dead plankton sometimes called "snow" in the open ocean as it drifts down from the surface - can take months to reach the ocean floor drifting slowly on currents. What if ends up hundreds or thousands of miles away from the area treated? Currents change. Deep currents are not well charted. Whose going to predict where its going to end up? Will the companies want to wait to be paid until "their" algae and its carbon can be located and measured? Does their business model allow costs to pay for this monitoring? More than likely the majority of the algae these companies fertilize will end up in the food chain and not on the sea floor any where close to where it was fertilized - perhaps in sensitive habitats like coral reefs. Considering the amount of sewage nutrients going into the oceans around the world from our grossly expanding human populations - I think the last thing we need now is more untrackable "fertilizer" of any kind in the oceans.

I would be much more impressed if these company's algae producing activity was land based and they sequestered their carbon in some usable product like lipids. This is being done for omega-3 oil production and at least theoretically for biodiesel fuels. Unfortunately, both these efforts are carbon neutral - since the oil is either eaten, or burned - and put back into the environment in short order. However, if a company was serious about having impact on carbon sequestering it should look to producing a more permanent product with algae lipids such as plastics. This type of activity could be land based where the side effects could be better controlled and monitored, the amount of carbon actually tied up could be measured exactly and it would tie up the carbon up for a much greater time than food oils or fuels.

I think this is why these companies are so proud of this carbon credit business model, no one is likely to be able to really track their actual results - not to mention the liability of their side affects in the open ocean and the respective food chains. I believe the sequestered carbon resulting from this open ocean iron fertilizer treatment will be very difficult if not impossible to accurately distinguish and measure. I'm sure they will want to be issued their carbon credits based on some theoretical and most assuredly optimized calculation based on how much water they treat - not on the actual carbon sequestered and delivered to the sea floor. However, I'm sure if the right politicians in the US, and or in the UN are also "fertilized" these carbon credit salesmen may well get paid for their unprovable benefits. I suggest both corporate and private citizens watch this kind of carbon credit business model very carefully - because ultimately the costs of the carbon credit programs will be passed to the consumer. If we allow the powers that be to support these kind of opaque - out of sight/out of mine technologies we deserve what we get.
Posted by masonx (244 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So they will sell NEW carbon credits and not make an overall difference at all? I do agree that you have to do this in pools/ponds under controlled circumstances. And the government scientists and nonprofit organizations have to supervise. I think the potential is there cuz it is feeding nature. Just make sure you feed the right nature in the right way. Reducing is not going to help seeing as most of the world is committing our past pollution mistakes because they are not technologicaly advanced enough to reduce their emissions. We have to account for their carbon and reduce ours.
Posted by iamarcin (36 comments )
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I hear a lot of nat straining and camel swallowing going on. It seems no one has looked at the obvious. Why are the Oceans depleted of Iron in the first place? Could it be the fact that we've dammed up every tributary river that would normally dump tons of Iron laden soil into the seas at each rainy season? I suggest we stop looking at the profit margin here and encourage those who are really Greenies, with some deep pockets, to fund a movement of the red (volcanic) soil, via. truck, to the Fishermen, who have the most to gain short term and let them dump it where their once prolific Kelp beds are. Perhaps this soil will be laden with enough alkaline material to re-balance the Sea PH simultaneously.
Posted by 335566jellyfish (1 comment )
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