A California business group has conducted the world’s largest “geoengineering” experiment by intentionally scattering 100 tons of iron dust into the Pacific west of Canada. The iron fragments were spread to fertilize the ocean and support more rapid growth of ocean plants, algae, which are the base of the food chain that fish, whales and other life depend on. The ocean plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, reducing somewhat the concentration of the most important greenhouse gas. When the iron-stimulated plants and the animals they support die they sink to the ocean floor, where their absorbed carbon is buried under time’s sediment layers, possibly recycling to become new fossil fuel in a few million years.
The project has caught flak from ocean scientists who acknowledge that geoengineering – application of large-scale technology to counteract human-caused climate change – may be necessary, but that it should only be done carefully, with great advance planning to minimize unintended damage to natural systems. A New York Times front page headline of 10/19/12 read “A Rogue Climate Experiment Has Ocean Experts Outraged.” A British newspaper, The Guardian, on the same day criticized the project and concept as follows:
“The prospect of geoengineering raises fundamental questions about whether we are capable of actively, co-operatively and equitably managing the global commons. This is new territory: whereas the risks of a nuclear disaster are potentially global, the risks of geoengineering are inherently so. Are we ready to govern technologies that if ever deployed, would need to be maintained for decades – or perhaps even centuries – in order to keep temperatures down and the climate stable? The history of the past century suggests that we are in no position to manage technologies on this scale, or even keep rogue researchers in check.”
The Guardian’s questions are valid, but civilization is already in the midst of a gigantic, though unintended, experiment with Earth’s climate as we alter the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, waste products from our annually burning four cubic miles of fossil coal, oil and natural gas, increase regularly and have already warmed the globe. We have solid historical evidence of high correlations between carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and world climate; Earth’s history tells us that present consumption levels will lead to a different, hotter, less hospitable world.
Today’s politics, as illustrated in the Obama-Romney debates, offer very little hope of immediate, deliberate, ambitious reductions in hydrocarbon consumption, so creating and testing multiple technologies to mitigate the worst effects of greenhouse gases is probably the best we can do. The scientists are correct; geoengineering presents unknown dangers and challenges, and many things could go terribly wrong when governments begin planned, uncharted and big interventions in natural systems. But action, trying whatever offers some hope, is better than just sitting back and waiting for a climate trainwreck.
Image By THEBLITZ1 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons