I like this New York Times piece describing a scientific experiment and its clashes with regulation about geoengineering because it highlights the unavoidable relationship of policy, scientific exploration, the economy, and the environment. “Mitigating climate change” has traditionally been separated into two tracks: finding less polluting sources of energy and fixing the negative effects we are witnessing. I would argue that the latter is treating the symptoms while the former is treating the cause, but a combined approach is likely where we will end up (think treating diseases in medicine). Both, however, sit at the intersection of technology development, economic benefits, environmental externalities and government regulation and while “clean energy” has traditionally received the majority of the media and political attention, I think geoengineering will begin to play a bigger role in the future.
In a summary of the article, entrepreneur Russ George claims he was conducting a scientific inquiry while simultaneously helping fishermen from an island off British Columbia. He added about 100 tons of iron to the ocean and studied the increased growth of plankton which is hoped to subsequently improve the salmon population for the fishermen. He did this with no government oversight and may have breached regulation regarding geoengineering.
What strikes me about this article is the following:
(1) George’s actions have disrupted an ecosystem that people may assume was previously in its natural state. I think (though I don’t know for a fact) that the region is probably suffering from the effects of overfishing, reduced fish population and a disruption of the local food chain. Can he argue that he is just helping restore the ecosystem to its initial balance?
(2) 100 tons sounds like a whole lot of iron, but let’s put this in context of the ocean. A quick Google search tells me that iron powder has a density of about 3 grams per cubic centimeter, or 187 pounds per cubic foot. That means that George dumped about 1070 square feet of iron. That might sound like a lot, but now let’s say that George and his team scattered iron in square region that is a quarter mile by quarter mile and one mile deep (to be conservative). That space has a volume of 9,199,872,000 square feet of water. The iron is less than 0.000000116th of the volume of water.
(3) Despite being such a small fraction of the water volume, it is going to have an effect on the ecosystems (remember, the whole point was to spur plankton growth). Though studies of eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) definitely exist, I would argue that we know only a small fraction of the ultimate effect of this action. Recall that there was time when we did not know that smoking cigarettes was bad for health or that CFCs contributed to ozone depletion.
(4) Of course, it is not even the 100 tons of iron that is the problem but the matter of an entity making changes to the environment that have future implications for all inhabitants that we do not fully understand. George claims he is helping a group of fisherman, but is this a slippery slope where the next “necessary” thing we do (to spur economic growth, etc) hurts the planet more than it helps? I am suddenly and startlingly reminded of the current political debate about air emission regulation for power plants.
So in full disclosure, I don’t know very much about geoengineering yet, but I plan to post more as I learn more. In the meantime, I am excited to read this book, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, which explores the argument of geoengineering.