Planktos: False Solutions to Colonize our Oceans

PLANKTOS: The Solution to Climate Change?

By Maya Face
A for-profit company named Planktos Inc. claims toplankton bloom “erase carbon footprints” by offsetting carbon emissions. Their promotional materials say, “Global Warming: Solved!” –offering a quick fix to the largest challenge of our times. While they are primarily concerned with “restoring” plankton in the oceans, they have a subsidiary that plants trees in the European Union. The carbon dioxide taken up by the plankton is sold as carbon credits to consumers, businesses and governments. Ocean fertilization is a quickly emerging threat to the oceans and better ways of dealing with climate change; the estimated future value of the market for ocean fertilization is $100 billion. Planktos is likely to make huge profits from the Kyoto Protocol, the market for carbon offsets, the huge carbon footprints of Western consumers, and industrial greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the world’s oceans and climate are paying the price, with widespread scientific uncertainty as to how they will be affected by iron fertilization.
Planktos goes out in huge ships (yes, gas-guzzling ships) and dumps dozens of tons of iron nano-particles into the ocean. These stimulate phytoplankton blooms. The plankton then uses sunlight and nutrients to pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Some of the plankton gets eaten and the CO2 is re-released into the atmosphere. The rest of the plankton sinks to the bottom of the ocean when they die. It is unclear how much plankton sinks and for how long. (Hood n.d.)
The general concept is very similar to offsetting carbon emissions by planting trees to sequester carbon. The problems with it are similar as well. Instead of introducing trees to an area where they probably don’t belong, Planktos is introducing iron nano-particles where they don’t belong. Both types of projects fail to stop emissions where they start, and actually make it easier to keep polluting. Carbon offsets get in the way of any change that may actually challenge systematized pollution and the fossil fuel industry.
Scientists first took interest in iron fertilization in the 1980’s, when oceanographer John Martin said, “Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age.” Since then, interest has grown to point where companies like Planktos make headlines in the mainstream media.
In March of 2007, Planktos launched its “Voyage of Recovery” with the Weatherbird II. They made its first stop in Washington DC to “awaken policymakers and the public to the immense climatic, ecological and economic significance of ocean plankton restoration”. Planktos claimed they were going to dump over 50 tons of iron particles into the Pacific Ocean west of the Galapagos Islands, covering an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometers in diameter. Throughout the year of 2007, Planktos dropped 100 tons of iron into the ocean. Some say this would only be a small percent of the area covered by naturally occurring blooms. (Laumer 2006)
First of all, Planktos Inc. has probably violated ocean protection laws. For their expedition to the Galapagos, they did not receive any permits from the United States and did not complete any Environmental Impact Statements. The company is based in the United Sates, and in 2002, they dumped iron into American waters from a yacht (lent to them by Neil Young) under the American Flag. They are deliberately avoiding US law by flagging their iron-dumping ship in a foreign country. However, because the iron is coming from the US, they may be in violation of the US Ocean Dumping Act. (Dumping on Gaia 2006)
Planktos is right that phytoplankton is important; it is pretty much the base of the marine food web. But little is known about the impact of dumping iron in such large quantities and many are concerned it could be detrimental to the ocean ecosystem. Authorities from the Galapagos National Park stated that it is, ”scientifically dubious, environmentally dangerous and capable of altering marine food chains.” (ETC 2007)
They deliberately dumped what is probably the largest amount of nanoparticles dumped in history. The safety of nanoparticles is dubious, with many reports coming out about their potential toxicity. (ETC 2007)
Many environmental organizations have also expressed serious concerns about iron dumping. Groups opposed to iron dumping include World Wildlife Fund, ETC Group, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Charles Darwin Society. Dr David Santillo, a senior scientist at the Greenpeace research laboratories at Exeter University, stated, “Adding iron on such a scale will… damage natural ecosystems.”
On top of all of this, there have been no long-term studies that prove that iron dumping will sequester as much carbon as they say. Studies in the lab have proven that iron fertilization can be successful, but there is no guarantee that in the ocean, with all of its complexities, the same will happen. Dr. David Santillo states that, “There is no proof that the plankton blooms result in carbon being locked into sediments.” Dumping iron in the ocean will cause plankton to bloom, but there is little evidence to show how the plankton will deal with the carbon. No one is sure whether the carbon will stay inside of the plankton forever, or if the plankton will drop to the bottom of the ocean forever. Some experiments have shown that, even if large amounts of iron are dumped, the rates of carbon sequestration are minimal. (David 2007)
Members of the International Panel on Climate Change have expressed concerns that iron dumping could cause toxic blooms and increased production of methane and nitrous oxide—the second and third largest greenhouse gas contributors to climate change. (ETC 2007) Biologists from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California report that plankton fertilized by iron releases methyl bromide (which damages the ozone layer) and isoprene (which increases the greenhouse effect). (Dalton 2002)
Unfortunately, Planktos can’t do anything to help our best phytoplankton ally in slowing climate change. Emiliania huxleyi (Ehux) is a single-celled Coccolithophorid that both pumps down CO2 and makes dimethyl sulfide, which creates clouds that cool the oceans (14). It is dying out because of the increased acidity in the oceans caused by climate change. But alas, they require selenium, not iron for their growth. (Danbara 1999)
Ehux is not the only species in the ocean that is feeling a negative impact from ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is a major problem that affects other phytoplankton species, corals, other marine animals and thus the ecosystem they are a part of. (Hood n.d.) Ocean acidification is increasing because of the rise in temperatures and the large amounts of CO2 that the ocean has had to absorb since the beginning of the industrial age. By intentionally drawing down CO2 into the oceans this process will rapidly increase. (Science Daily 2007)
In April of 2007, forty-seven scientists co-authored an article in the scientific journal “Nature”, which assumed that carbon sequestered from iron dumping would only be temporarily held in the phytoplankton. (2007) It is also argued that, in order to be effective, iron dumping would have to take place repeatedly over a long period of time. (David 2007) One study showed that the phytoplankton would have been naturally fertilized by iron anyway without the artificial dumping. (David 2007)
Ken Buessler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and participant in two iron fertilization experiments at sea, seriously questions the ability of plankton to hold on to carbon over long periods of time. Buessler said that carbon may be absorbed for a short while, but when the plankton is eaten or decomposed, the carbon may be re-released. (Ritchell 2007) In 2005, he participated in an experiment where iron was dropped, but there were huge variations in the amount of plankton that stayed in the sea. (Science Daily 2007)
In September of 2007, nearly 100 ocean scientists gathered in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to discuss iron fertilization. According to Planktos, the scientists all agreed and decided that more ocean iron fertilization projects should proceed. (Planktos 2007) According to every news source that I found, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s own website, there was widespread disagreement, and the general sentiment was that we don’t know enough about iron fertilization and its potential adverse effects for it to be done on a large scale.
Ken Buessler was very vocal and active at the conference, arguing that there is too much potential danger to make it iron fertilization worth it. John Cullen of Dalhousie University of Canada argued that there could be unforeseen consequences, stating that, “It could be going wrong and we wouldn’t know it.” He also said that iron dumping could cause subtle changes in plankton, alter the ocean’s chemistry, and eventually cause great change in the world’s oceans. (Villaviencio 2007)
Nearly all the scientists gathered at Wood’s Hole felt it was necessary to do more testing, but funding that doesn’t come from Planktos Inc. is hard to come by. Climos, one of Planktos’ competitors, does a lot more scientific research and promotes the reduction of emissions (at least in theory). Climos’ advisory board is filled with fairly established oceanographers, and their Chief Science Officer is the former Asst. Director of Geosciences at the National Science Foundation. They are doing experiments that report effectiveness in their methods of absorbing carbon. It is most likely that those with money to gain if iron fertilization is proven viable will do all experiments from now on.
In response to the controversy around iron fertilization, Climos recently produced a Code of Conduct. Planktos said they would abide by it, but who knows what kind of controversy would ensue if they didn’t, and how will we know if they actually follow it?
There is another issue of accountability. As John Cullen of Dalhousie University of Canada pointed out, if iron fertilization caused a mass fish kill ten years from now, who would we hold responsible and how? (Joyce 2007) There are so many different factors that make the ocean ecosystem what it is; there is really no way to know what caused what. Also, since many of these projects take place outside of any national jurisdiction, and it is very difficult to take legal action if degradation occurs. And, like any offset program, there is no way to know for sure how much carbon is absorbed, and creative accounting runs rampant.
Defending themselves from the harsh criticism of environmental groups, Planktos argues that they abide by the strict regulations of the Kyoto Accord. But none of the carbon-offset programs used under Kyoto can be scientifically verified as effective. (Lohmann)
Some environmental groups support iron fertilization. One of their main points is that phytoplankton plays an extremely important role in ocean ecology. Some argue that climate change is a much larger threat to our oceans than iron fertilization, and that it is therefore worth it to go ahead with these projects, despite scientific uncertainty. The ocean is responsible for absorbing about half of the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels. (Joyce 2007) Jeff Chanton, of Florida State University states that because of the loss of carbon sinks on land (from deforestation), there is now more pressure on the oceans to absorb carbon.
A website called “The Green Geek” which promotes the use of technology to solve environmental problems reported that, “Since 1980, phytoplankton in the earth’s oceans has dropped by 25%.” Planktos proposed to bring phytoplankton levels to where they were before 1980 (as measured by NASA and NOAA). (Green Geek n.d)
Phytoplankton is said to perform 50% of the world’s photosynthesis. Climatologist Alder Fuller claims the oceans contain about 50% of the CO2 from the industrial era. If everything goes as planned, iron fertilization might have the potential to lock up 50% of the carbon released by all fossil fuels. But, as described above, the ocean is already suffering from increased acidity because it has to absorb so much carbon. Similarly, the Earth’s trees are having difficulty absorbing all the carbon we want them to.
If there were trustworthy scientists doing the research, and a broad scientific consensus saying that iron fertilization is effective and safe, I may consider supporting it. And I would only consider supporting it if those implementing were well qualified and did not have vested financial interest in the results. But iron fertilization has already been proven to be unsafe, so these things could never happen. If it was a good thing to do and could be done safely, it should be done because it is a good thing to do, not because someone needs a justification to keep polluting. It would also have to be done on a small, non-commercial scale. With the way science and business treat each other these days, it would be very difficult to tell whether it should be used.
Much of my fear of iron fertilization lies in the fact that Planktos is helping set a very low standard for dealing with climate change. They are trail blazing, and other companies are likely to follow along. Is this the sort of response to climate change we want to see? Other companies may see how easy it can be to make money off of iron fertilization and other ecologically disruptive projects.
What happens when you commercialize and commodify the ability of the ocean to sequester carbon? We’ve seen what can happen to natural resources when there is a market for them. Planktos is building an industry out of a natural ecological process. Professor Andrew Watson, of East Anglia University stated, “It is not just that this project may be dangerous, it is also unethical. What right has one group or country to use the world’s oceans to resolve its domestic problems?”
Iron dumping is one of many emerging forms of Geoengineering. Geoengineering is the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale “to suit human needs and promote habitability” (Wikipedia 2007) Another way of saying that is, “global-scale interventions to alter the oceans and the atmosphere so fossil corporations can continue business as usual.” Other forms of geoengineering include: pumping CO2 underground, blocking the sun’s path to the earth with giant reflectors, creating a giant sulfur parasol or by “enhancing” clouds and wind scrubbers to filter carbon dioxide out of the air. People seem willing to do just about anything to avoid facing our destructive consumption patterns. With all the money and research these projects require, why don’t we just stop polluting?
Carbon offsets are now one of the most highly promoted solutions to climate change. When Al Gore (who uses at least twenty times as much energy as the average American) was confronted about his personal energy consumption, he defended himself by saying he “offsets” his carbon emissions with carbon credits. The Vatican is now “carbon neutral”, in part because of their patronage to Planktos.
Carbon offsets create a disincentive to reduce pollution or work towards other solutions to climate change. For many companies, it is cheaper to pay someone to sequester carbon than it is to reduce emissions. By giving you the right to pollute, you can buy your way out of feeling guilty or having a bad image, and there is no need to face reality. By giving us an excuse to keep polluting, they actually create incentives to continue using fossil fuel. They inherently directly support the companies causing climate change and maintain the infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry.
The biggest reason why climate change was allowed to break in to the mainstream media with the force it has in the last couple years is because corporations got very good at finding ways of making money off of it, or at least not losing money. Carbon offsets serve to protect the profits of those causing climate change.
Although their advertising very loudly touts iron fertilization as the “solution”, David Kubiak of Planktos Inc. states that iron fertilization can only take care of one part of the problem. (Laumer 2006) My advice to anyone looking to deal with climate change is to be very wary of anything that says it is the solution. This is how the Microsoft Word dictionary defines solution:
so·lu·tion n
1. a method of successfully dealing with a problem or difficulty
2. the answer to a puzzle or question
3. the process of resolving a difficulty or finding the answer to a puzzle or question
Dealing with climate change is more about developing processes than finding an answer. Climate change is intrinsically connected to a slew of other problems including capitalism, industrialization, imperialism and the separation between humans and all other beings. In order to effectively slow climate change, we must get at its root causes. But we must also work on what will give us immediate results, as this is a crucial time to protect the climate. This is an overwhelmingly complex, multi-faceted and pretty much endless process. “Solution” means fixing something and being done. Even by saying that there is a solution, Planktos is promoting the idea that just technology will save us from ourselves.


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