If you remember the ’70s, you also remember Chiffon Margarine teaching us that “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Today, though, we’re learning a new lesson: “It’s not as easy to fool Mother Nature as some presumptuous humans might think.”
Take, for example, one of the hot new technology fixes being proposed for global warming: ocean fertilization. The idea is to seed the oceans with iron or other nutrients to encourage naturally occurring algae to go into photosynthetic overdrive. Algae absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, in theory, dump it safely away deep underwater when they die. More algae = less carbon = global warming, solved.
Except that Mother Nature and real life might not work that way. A new study just published in the Journal of Geophysical Research finds that, when natural algal blooms are at their peak during the summertime, less carbon — not more — actually sinks below the surface than during other times of the year.
Researchers from Stanford University and Oregon State University set out to test how effective ocean fertilization might be by measuring seasonal variations in both natural algae abundance and carbon sinking rates. Using specially designed mathematical algorithms to conduct this first-ever analysis, they ended up an unexpected result: when algae is at its peak, carbon sinking is at its lowest.
“This discovery is very surprising,” said Michael Lutz, a lead author of the study. It also indicates ocean fertilization schemes might not work as well as presumed, he said, “because they ignore the natural processes revealed by this research.”
So why does less carbon sink when more algae blooms? The reason appears to be that algal blooms are like “ringing the marine ecosystem dinner bell,” Lutz said. Everything from microbes on up move in to eat the abundant algae while it’s fresh, leaving less to die a natural death and sink to the bottom with its carbon.
The finding “makes sense if you consider how this ecosystem has evolved in a way to minimize loss,” Lutz said. “Our study highlights the need to understand natural ecosystem processes, especially in a world where change is occurring so rapidly.”
The discovery is especially timely, considering ocean fertilization is one of the topics on the agenda for next month’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali. Maybe attendees should take a cue from the London Convention, which earlier this month warned that ocean fertilization experiments “are currently not justified.”
So what do you think? Is ocean fertilization still worth investigating? Or is it, as Law of the Sea expert Rosemary Rayfuse put it, “dumping”? I think she makes a strong case when she says, “There is no point trying to ameliorate the effects of climate change by destroying the oceans — the very cradle of life on earth. Simply doing more and bigger of that which has already been demonstrated to be ineffective and potentially more harmful than good is counter-intuitive at best.”