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On the heels of my last post about iron fertilization of the ocean, I found another interesting paper on the topic. This one, written by Long Cao and Ken Caldeira in 2010, was much less hopeful.

Instead of a small-scale field test, Cao and Caldeira decided to model iron fertilization using the ocean GCM from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. To account for uncertainties, they chose to calculate an upper bound on iron fertilization rather than a most likely scenario. That is, they maxed out phytoplankton growth until something else became the limiting factor – in this case, phosphates. On every single cell of the sea surface, the model phytoplankton were programmed to grow until phosphate concentrations were zero.

A 2008-2100 simulation implementing this method was forced with CO2 emissions data from the A2 scenario. An otherwise identical A2 simulation did not include the ocean fertilization, to act as a control. Geoengineering modelling is strange that way, because there are multiple definitions of “control run”: a non-geoengineered climate that is allowed to warm unabated, as well as preindustrial conditions (the usual definition in climate modelling).

Without any geoengineering, atmospheric CO2 reached 965 ppm by 2100. With the maximum amount of iron fertilization possible, these levels only fell to 833 ppm. The mitigation of ocean acidification was also quite modest: the sea surface pH in 2100 was 7.74 without geoengineering, and 7.80 with. Given the potential side effects of iron fertilization, is such a small improvement worth the trouble?

Unfortunately, the ocean acidification doesn’t end there. Although the problem was lessened somewhat at the surface, deeper layers in the ocean actually became more acidic. There was less CO2 being gradually mixed in from the atmosphere, but another source of dissolved carbon appeared: as the phytoplankton died and sank, they decomposed a little bit and released enough CO2 to cause a net decrease in pH compared to the control run.

In the diagram below, compare the first row (A2 control run) to the second (A2 with iron fertilization). The more red the contours are, the more acidic that layer of the ocean is with respect to preindustrial conditions. The third row contains data from another simulation in which emissions were allowed to increase just enough to offest sequestration by phytoplankton, leading to the same CO2 concentrations as the control run. The general pattern – iron fertilization reduces some acidity at the surface, but increases it at depth – is clear.

depth vs. latitude at 2100 (left); depth vs. time (right)

The more I read about geoengineering, the more I realize how poor the associated cost-benefit ratios might be. The oft-repeated assertion is true: the easiest way to prevent further climate change is, by a long shot, to simply reduce our emissions.

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While many forms of geoengineering involve counteracting global warming with induced cooling, others move closer to the source of the problem and target the CO2 increase. By artificially boosting the strength of natural carbon sinks, it might be possible to suck CO2 emissions right out of the air. Currently around 30% of human emissions are absorbed by these sinks; if we could make this metric greater than 100%, atmospheric CO2 concentrations would decline.

One of the most prominent proposals for carbon sink enhancement involves enlisting phytoplankton, photosynthetic organisms in the ocean which take the carbon out of carbon dioxide and use it to build their bodies. When nutrients are abundant, phytoplankton populations explode and create massive blue or green blooms visible from space. Very few animals enjoy eating these organisms, so they just float there for a while. Then they run out of nutrients, die, and sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the carbon with them.

Phytoplankton blooms are a massive carbon sink, but they still can’t keep up with human emissions. This is because CO2 is not the limiting factor for their growth. In many parts of the ocean, the limiting factor is actually iron. So this geoengineering proposal, often known as “iron fertilization”, involves dumping iron compounds into the ocean and letting the phytoplankton go to work.

A recent study from Germany (see also the Nature news article) tested out this proposal on a small scale. The Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, was the location of their field tests, since it has a strong circumpolar current that kept the iron contained. After adding several tonnes of iron sulphate, the research ship tracked the phytoplankton as they bloomed, died, and sank.

Measurements showed that at least half of the phytoplankton sank below 1 km after they died, and “a substantial portion is likely to have reached the sea floor”. At this depth, which is below the mixed layer of the ocean, the water won’t be exposed to the atmosphere for centuries. The carbon from the phytoplankton’s bodies is safely stored away, without the danger of CO2 leakage that carbon capture and storage presents. Unlike in previous studies, the researchers were able to show that iron fertilization could be effective.

However, there are other potential side effects of large-scale iron fertilization. We don’t know what the impacts of so much iron might be on other marine life. Coating the sea surface with phytoplankton would block light from entering the mixed layer, decreasing photosynthesis in aquatic plants and possibly leading to oxygen depletion or “dead zones”. It’s also possible that toxic species of algae would get a hold of the nutrients and create poisonous blooms. On the other hand, the negative impacts of ocean acidification from high levels of CO2 would be lessened, a problem which is not addressed by solar radiation-based forms of geoengineering.

Evidently, the safest way to fix the global warming problem is to stop burning fossil fuels. Most scientists agree that geoengineering should be a last resort, an emergency measure to pull out if the Greenland ice sheet is about to go, rather than an excuse for nations to continue burning coal. And some scientists, myself included, fully expect that geoengineering will be necessary one day, so we might as well figure out the safest approach.

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