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Ocean fertilization and climate change

Have you heard of geoengineering? It’s a tool becoming increasingly used, but is often controversial because, in some cases, the result can be completely unexpected!

Today we’ll talk about a polemic experiment carried out in July 2012 by Russ George, an American businessman who dumped approximately 100 tons of iron sulphate in the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering project off the west coast of Canada.

Ocean fertilization by iron sulfate. Source

Iron is considered an essential element, often limiting, for phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton perform photosynthesis, a process in which sunlight is used as an energy source and absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) and water to produce organic matter in the form of carbohydrates. Phytoplankton cells are formed from these carbohydrates with the addition of other substances such as proteins, amino acids, and other molecules.

In 1980, oceanographer John Martin proposed that certain regions of the ocean (the areas called HNLC - High Nutrient, Low Chlorophyll), although rich in nutrients, would be poor in primary production due to lack of iron. Thus, the addition of iron should increase the production of phytoplankton and hence affect the carbon cycle, reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. His famous phrase “Give me half a tanker full of iron and I’ll give you an Ice Age” caused great excitement because he believed that if certain areas of the ocean were fertilized, the effects of global warming could be reversed, cooling the Earth.

Thus arose the idea that the American businessman put into practice. Russ and his team released a certain amount of iron into the sea, believing it would promote photosynthetic activity and thus increase the efficiency of the carbon sequestration processes in the ocean. Just like the process to fertilize a crop for it to go grow faster! This issue has generated much controversy because it conflicts with ethical and political questions about the effects that an intervention like this would bring to a complex ecosystem. We still know relatively little about the ocean. To better understand why the idea of this project is so controversial, let’s first talk about some important processes in the “wonderful world ocean.”

Have you ever heard of “physical pump”? Or a “biological pump”? No, it’s not a kind of weapon of war to decimate an enemy population. The physical pump is the process related to the solubility of CO2 in the ocean (solubility = maximum amount of a substance that can be dissolved in a liquid). The biological pump takes into account what happens to the CO2 after it is dissolved in the ocean, when a fraction of dissolved carbon is absorbed through photosynthesis, in the surface layers of the ocean, and transported to the bottom. The diagram below explains how carbon is transported in the ocean.

Carbon movement in the ocean system. 1) Using solar energy, carbon dioxide is fixed by phytoplankton in the photic zone (where there is light). 2) Part of this organic matter is consumed by zooplankton and some heterotrophic microorganisms. 3) Other organic matter is exported from the photic zone toward the mesopelagic zone (about 1000 m deep), and a fraction of this organic matter is remineralized while the rest goes to the bottom of the ocean, where it will take thousands of years to return to the surface. Adapted from United States Joint Global Ocean Flux Study.

CO2 is a gas capable of dissolving in the surface of the oceans. This solubility mechanism is related to the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and the water temperature: the more CO2 in the atmosphere and the lower the temperature, the greater the amount of gas dissolved in the ocean surface. Once dissolved in water, the CO2 passes to a further stage of the cycle, where it can be absorbed by photosynthetic marine organisms.

Part of the organic matter formed during photosynthesis is used in cellular respiration and released back into the seawater as CO2. The other fraction, which was used in the formation of the cell, is consumed by zooplankton (primary consumers in marine food webs - read more here) and/or transported by gravity to the bottom of the ocean through  “marine snow,” particles made up of food debris and fecal pellets coming from feeding zooplankton, shells, and dead microorganisms. This carbon transfer process to the deep ocean decreases the amount of carbon in the photic zone (zone that receives enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur), sequestering (removing) billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Some studies have estimated that the biological pump is responsible for removing about 5-15 gigatons of carbon per year (Henson et al., 2011).

Marine Phytoplankton. Source

You can probably imagine how important this removal is when looking at the large amount of carbon that our industrial activities, cars, and planes have emitted into the atmosphere over the last few years. It is important to remember that the much discussed global warming, among other issues, is largely caused by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2014,  in 2010 alone, 49 gigatons of carbon were released into the atmosphere by human activities. And that is precisely why these experiments with iron have gained so much popularity.

Sounds simple, right? Okay, solved the problem of global warming! Let's fertilize the oceans! But it is not so simple. Interfering in natural ecosystems is an extremely sensitive subject, which can cause incalculable and irreparable damage.

Some researchers performed similar experiments as the American businessman and concluded that despite the fertilization increasing the rate of photosynthesis, it can trigger changes in ocean chemistry by changing the operation of the entire system. For example, increased photosynthetic rates by phytoplankton are directly proportional to the amount of dimethylsulfide (DMS - volatile sulfur in reduced form) secreted by these microalgae in water, which is vaporized and form condensation particles in the air (i.e. more photosynthesis by the phytoplankton = more dimethylsufide into the air). In the atmosphere, these particles facilitate the formation of clouds, which would be great, because with the increased formation of clouds there is increased reflection of solar radiation and thus greater cooling of the planet. However, not all types of clouds have the property to cool the planet. Recent studies suggest that other climatic factors may also affect the distribution and properties of clouds, which could increase the temperature of the planet. Furthermore, it was observed that fertilization also increases the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), a molecule that heats 320 times more than CO2.

Another study, published in April 2014 in Geophysical Research Letters, showed that more than 66% of the carbon sequestered by the ocean returns to the atmosphere in 100 years. That is, the biological pump may lessen the temperature of the Earth, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, but we do not know what will happen when this carbon returns. Controversial enough for you?

Image obtained by NASA, satellite view of a phytoplankton bloom.

Thus, although the processes that occur in the ocean are responsible for reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, altering the system may not be the best solution because there are many chemical, physical, and biological processes that are not fully understood. While we did not reach a more integrated understanding of these processes, the reduction of CO2 emissions would be much more efficient and safer than trying to remedy a problem by manipulating a process so complex and poorly understood.



Henson, S. A., R. Sanders, E. Madsen, P. J. Morris, F. Le Moigne, and G. D. Quartly (2011), A reduced estimate of the strength of the ocean's biological carbon pump, Geophysical Research Letters, 38

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