U.S. Businessman Conducts Massive and 'Illegal' Ocean Fertilization Experiment Off Canada's West Coast

NASA/JPL satellite image of massive algal bloom

[UPDATED: Oct. 18, 2012; see below] Geoengineering theories and  experiments have received much attention in recent years, with one recent experiment in “ocean (iron) fertilization” successfully conducted off the coast of Antarctica by a German scientific research team. Past experiments of this kind had mostly failed.

The basic idea is to trigger large blooms of plankton to absorb large quantities of CO2; the plankton eventually die and sink to the bottom of the ocean — thereby “sequestering” carbon.

Many scientists are skeptical about whether this technique can serve as an effective carbon sink in the long term, while some worry that it could do more harm than good.

Due to the very experimental nature of these “iron seeding” geoengineering schemes — and the very real possibility of unintentional consequences like increased acidification, oxygen depletion, and even toxic plankton blooms — such experiments are limited and generally reserved for scientific research teams. Indeed, the United Nations has recently imposed moratoria to limit the number of such ocean fertilization experiments.

A Rogue Geo-Engineer/Profiteer

But this has not stopped a company backed by US businessman Russ George from unilaterally conducting his own private, large-scale, ocean fertilization experiment just off Canada’s West Coast (North British Columbia). Said experiment has actually been underway since July, when George dumped approximately 100 tons of iron sulphate into coastal waters after convincing a local tribe (a First Nations village on the archipelago of Haida Gwaii) that the enterprise — named the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation — would benefit the local salmon population. The tribe even kicked in 1 million CN to help fund the project.

In a statement to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Mr. George calls it “the most substantial ocean restoration project in history.”

Indeed, recent NASA satellite images confirmed a massive algal bloom comprising 10,000 square kilometers (6,214 sq. miles) just off the B.C. coast.

image showing high chlorophyll concentration, Canadian West Coast, August, 2012
Yellow and brown colors show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of the geoengineering scheme. Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA.

 Public and Scientific Criticism

As expected, the project sparked an outcry from environmentalists, scientists, community groups, and officials from the Canadian government. The matter is currently under investigation by Environment Canada.

Oceanographer John Cullen, at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, commented:

“It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later. Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.”

Some Background on Russ George

Mr George is not new to geoengineering schemes; he is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, which oversaw two previous “large-scale commercial dumps” (of iron sulphate particles) off the Galapagos and Canary Islands. These unauthorized dumps apparently failed and resulted in his vessels being barred from ports by their respective Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. He was even warned by the U.S. EPA that flying the US flag (in the Galapagos mission) was in violation of US laws.

Consequently, George’s rogue geoengineering efforts led to the United Nations passing the noted moratoria limiting such experiments.

Interestingly, Mr. George has acknowledged that his team of “unidentified scientists” has  been monitoring the developments with equipment loaned to him by federal US agencies like NOAA and NASA. It is not known to what extent these agencies were or are aware of the international moratoria on ocean fertilization.

As Mr. George is a businessman, not a scientist, one can surmise that his motives for geoengineering are profiteering in nature… perhaps seeking to profit off the carbon credit market.

Other observers expect legal action to ensue in the event that it is found he deceived that tribe, or the government agencies that loaned him equipment. Further, his actions may be in violation of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as well as another (London) convention concerning dumping “waste” at sea.

But Mr. George, who rejects the applicability of these conventions, seems to be  a damn-the-torpedos-full-steam-ahead kind of opportunist. In the same Guardian interview, a confident Russ George stated: “We’ve gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilisation]. And the news is good news, all around, for the planet.”

Well, that remains to be seen; it will take months, if not years, for real independent scientists to determine the medium- to long-term impacts of this first-ever private geoengineering experiment.

Kids… don’t try this at home.

UPDATE: Oct. 18, 2012 – A recent As It Happens interview article identified a John Disney as the “president of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation and the economic development officer for the Old Massett Village Council.” The article quotes an official at the development corporation as saying “the benefits (of the geoeongineering project) are already apparent.”

This claim is doubtful in that follow up studies/analyses have not yet been published or released to the public; such studies require extensive sampling and measuring of dying or dead plankton at varying depths (as the Wegener Institute  team has done), as well as measuring accumulation of the “muscillagenous” remains of the plankton on the sea floor.

Additionally, analysis of the types of plankton produced in this bloom have not (to our knowledge) been conducted yet (as they were in the Wegener project). Some past iron fertilization projects triggered blooms of an algae species that produces domoic acid, a neurotoxin (see previous link, ‘toxic blooms’, above).

Mr. Disney has stated elsewhere (in a radio interview) that the First Peoples village originally contacted him about conducting the experiment.

In related coverage, ETC, an NGO that monitors geoengineering experiments, also identified Mr. Disney, and provided a CBC link in which Disney claimed that government agencies (including Environment Canada) were informed of the project prior to its initiation.

Quoting Jim Thomas (of ETC) from the same ETC website post:

“This dump is a blatant violation of global moratoria established by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD] and the International Maritime Organization. The fact that we’re hearing this news while governments, including Canada, are meeting in India [at the CBD] to discuss global oversight of geoengineering should significantly up the urgency of that discussion. Back home, Canada needs to come clean about how Disney’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ operation got away with such a serious violation and what it’s going to do about it.”

The Canadian government’s investigation continues, as does the controversy. Stay tuned folks…this one ain’t over by a long shot.

Some source material for this article came from the io9 blog post “A massive and illegal geoengineering project has been detected off Canada’s west coast,” by George Dvorsky

Top image credit: NASA

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