Global Warming Warrior: Phytoplankton

In May of this year, WEATHERBIRD II, a 115-foot research vessel trolled the Pacific Ocean dumping more than 20 tons of iron dust into the water near the Galapagos Islands. Why? The project is the first large-scale effort in a controversial field, known as geoengineering, which aims to actively combat global warming. This also proved to be the first attempt to profit from this long studied however unproved iron-seeding antidote to the global dilemma. This is an idea spawned by the company, Planktos, which is spearheaded by D. Russ George, a former Greenpeacer and environmental project manager with the Canadian government. Planktos Corp. is a public company (OTCBB:PLKT) engaged in the development of global eco-restoration projects to revive dwindling forests and ocean plankton ecosystems. The company harnesses the power of green plants and photosynthesis to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s planned restoration of ocean plankton blooms are intended to produce carbon offsets for sale into both regulated and voluntary climate change markets around the world.
This solution seems a bit more than strange, but when approached from a scientific perspective, it actually makes sense. The iron rich water would stimulate the growth of phytoplankton upon the ocean’s surface which should, in theory, then suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by the tons and sink it deep into the ocean. Phytoplankton is in many ways a plant, and as such, actively absorbs the carbon dioxide in the air and converts it to oxygen. Dumping iron sulphate in the ocean to cause plankton blooms might not seem an eco-friendly way to tackle the global warming crisis. But, according to the most in depth trial of the technique so far, it could prove an effective one.

The outcome of the trial in the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, suggested that each atom of iron added to the sea could pull between 10,000 and 100,000 atoms of carbon out of the atmosphere by encouraging plankton growth, which captures carbon and sinks it deep towards the ocean floor. If successfully ramped up, such ‘iron fertilization’ of the sea might just make a significant dent in the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some researchers estimate that using the technique in the Southern Ocean alone could absorb 15% of carbon dioxide build-up and the findings have fuelled expectations that ocean fertilization could provide an environmentally friendly technique for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. “It is a worthy endeavor to mitigate future global warming,” says Russ George.
Iron is proven to be essential for plant growth. Most of it has been reaching the oceans through winds carrying eroded, iron-rich soils from dry areas on land. But changes in climate and vegetation since the end of the last glacial period are believed to have diminished the iron supply to the ocean thereby reducing the growth of plankton. Advocates of the technique argue that they would simply be restoring iron in the ocean to its previous level. Planktos likes to compare this process to something similar to reforestation, but for the oceans. But dumping iron dust into the ocean is supposedly not totally crazy; oceanographers say that studies show that phytoplankton blooms do actually absorb huge amounts of CO2.
The same oceanographers who have studied and reported positively on the absorption of CO2 are also leery of manipulating ocean chemistry for profit and it is not yet clear just how much CO2 that the dead plankton will drag into the depths of the ocean. This topic is certainly laden with controversy, environmental groups and a number of U.S. studies have indicated that this ‘seeding’ project could have an adverse affect upon ocean life. These studies present the possibility that by enriching the iron content in sea water that this could in turn lead to toxic algae blooms. Further more, all of the decomposing plankton masses from said toxic blooms might actually release other hazardous greenhouse gases and or choke off the oxygen supply to the deeper ocean levels. Planktos did have a response to these allegations, stating that not only would their plans help to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere, but would also help to reverse the acidification affect of the oceans that is killing off the coral reefs. This was a mute and unproven rebuttal for many however; in contrast, it has been proven that warmer ocean temperatures and bacterial growth from ocean dumped sewage are responsible for coral deforestation.
“The world has spent the last 20 years and more than $100-million” developing the science behind the plan, Planktos CEO Russ George said. “These questions have all been addressed,” he says, fingering the EPA’s reservations on “fear mongering” thanks to a large number of environmental groups.
It is of worthy note to mention that this is a pilot study, and the ship was well equipped for the proper monitoring and research of this unproven theory. Planktos seems to be genuinely dedicated to engaging in scientifically and environmentally sound business practices within the well-regulated and certificate-driven programs described by UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocols. Although, Planktos seems to be equally dedicated to its investors, being a publicly traded company. Despite all this tit for tat, over the coming years, the work aboard the Weatherbird will provide the critical data and knowledge required by project development documents and methodologies. This information will lead to verifiable certifiable climate change projects among those nations who are signatories to the Kyoto Accord.
These controversial and speculative startups by George have many disbelievers scoffing at any investor willing to pump their dough into his companies. Nonetheless, they have and the ball continues to roll for George. He claims there is money to be made in “iron dumping” by selling credits on the nascent carbon-swap markets. While the pure research community says this idea needs more study George stands by his belief that this is a useful technology.
The financial returns for reducing carbon could be considerable, said Daniel M. Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In Europe, where there is a market for carbon credits, it is now worth a marginal $2 to offset a ton of carbon emissions. But not long ago, that figure was as high as $35 per ton, and it is expected to rise again as the limits imposed under the Kyoto Protocol on global warming start to take hold. Planktos believes that it can make a healthy profit if it receives $5 a ton for capturing carbon dioxide. “The cost of offsetting carbon through these technologies is less than the cost of building solar panels or windmills,” Mr. Kammen said. “There’s no question that this is going to grow,” he said of various carbon offset strategies.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.