Controversial Iron Seeding Off Coast of BC

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As a Social Studies teacher, I’m always on the look out for new stories or topics that link up well with curriculum outcomes in my subject area. With the growing drive towards issues analysis, solution making, and inquiry based learning, the concerns around geoengineering would be worth students researching in depth. I’ll be considering the below issue for use in both my World and Canadian Geography courses this year.

Brown and yellow areas show increased chlorophyll levels as of Aug 2012. (Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center; linked from planetsave.com)

One hot topic that has been in the news is the geoengineering project undertaken privately by US businessman Russ George off the coast of British Columbia. Back in July, George and his crew placed 100 tons of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean just outside of Canadian waters in an attempt to initiate a large scale plankton bloom, and according to some early data this has been partially successful (satellite imagery has shown an increase in plankton in the area in August). The benefits that George is looking for are twofold: an increase in phytoplankton may supply the marine food web with additional sources of energy and nutrients, while reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere (phyoplankton take in CO2 during photosynthesis and ‘drag’ it to the ocean floor when they die).

The project has come up against more than a little opposition in recent weeks, with environmentalist, government, and international organizations all speaking out against a geoengineering project on this level. There is concern that past attempts at a similar project have failed and that this current attempt has not been regulated by any scientific group or organization. Potential damage caused by changes to an ecozone on such a large scale can not easily be predicted and there is concern that levels of oxygen in the water may be reduced, harming life throughout the area. Some small scale blooms in the past have released a neuotoxin, domoic acid, and have since been labelled “toxic blooms”.

It seems George was in contact with the First Peoples village of Old Massett, from where the project was initiated, and suggested that the ocean fertilizing would be a solution to the low numbers of pacific salmon found in the local area (an increase in food supply at the base of the food chain should enable greater numbers of organisms for salmon to feed upon). He was convincing enough, since the group funded him a million dollars to go ahead with the activity.

Some have said that the project itself is illegal and violates certain international agreements Canada has signed prohibiting ocean fertilization for profit. George’s company has said that it plans to sell carbon credits based on any additional carbon absorbed by the project, and this would certainly show some attempt at profiting. In the last couple of days, the opposite has been stated in the media, saying that there were, in fact, no international laws that were broken.

It’s a testy subject, but it still seems the scientific community is against its occurrence, especially due to the fact that it has been conducted privately without formal regulations to oversee its execution.

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