A rogue science ship is poised to carry out risky experimental fertilization of the oceans. This is likely the first of many coming attempts to begin "geo-engineering" the biosphere as a solution to climate change. RV Polarstern, a German research ship, is to dump twenty tons of iron sulphate over 300 square kilometres of the Scotia Sea, off Chile's coast, near the Antarctic Peninsula. The chemical cargo -- normally used to treat lawns and sewage -- is likely to provoke a massive algal bloom big enough to be seen from outer space.
German and Indian scientists are hoping the experiment will show that such manmade algae blooms can provide a quick fix to climate change by absorbing carbon into the sea. Pouring iron into the Southern Ocean, which is iron-deficient, leads to a proliferation of phytoplankton algae which takes up CO2 from the atmosphere. After they die, they are thought to sink into the ocean depths trapping the greenhouse gas for long periods. Proponents estimate if done globally, some one billion tonnes of carbon could be removed from the atmosphere each year, earning some $100 billion in the carbon trading market.
The so-called LOHAFEX experiment breaches the global moratorium on ocean fertilization activities agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity and defies agreements against dumping of wastes in the sea. Large-scale "geo-engineering" projects like sea fertilization have recently also been banned by the International Maritime Organization, which is still preparing a detailed protocol on how to move forward responsibly.
The Earth System is a finely honed creature with unbelievably complex and ancient existing systems of planetary regulation. Almost certainly widespread embrace of ocean fertilization and other geo-engineering schemes will have major unintended consequences. Messing with ocean carbon storage will affect ocean currents and acidity, marine food webs, atmospheric circulation and weather. The powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide may be released as marine organic matter decomposes. Oxygen may become depleted in the deep ocean, killing fish and throwing already troubled marine ecosystems into further turmoil. Ocean fertilization and other large-scale geo-engineering experiments, and their possible implementation, pose immense risks of further damage to dependable climatic patterns and global ecology.
Geo-engineering diverts from sufficient solutions to stop climate change and restore global ecological systems. Reactionary geo-engineering proposals emerge largely from a sense of desperation as the world fails to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and an unwillingness to make necessary societal and personal changes in response to deadly climate change. To some the extreme action of taking the Earth's ecological systems into techno-human hands seems sensible given indications that global heating is proceeding more rapidly than thought, as shown by unexpectedly quick melting of Arctic sea ice. Radical geo-engineering proposals could just as easily worsen the situation if these projects fail or are suddenly halted. Once geo-engineering is embraced, we could never stop, or the carbon would be re-released. Failure could destroy the Earth.
Geo-engineering is indicative of both humanity's ignorance and laziness when confronted with tremendous challenges of their own making such as climate change. Don't try to change society to massively reduce emissions, don't sacrifice or give up anything, don't try to change the government through protest or revolution. Instead, take a craps shoot and bet the whole planet that you can engineer the biosphere. Have we really, fully tried to conserve energy, reduce emissions and pursue renewable alternatives yet? We are unable to control even most invasive species, for example getting zebra mussels out of the Great Lakes. Yet now humanity is going to be responsible for engineering a livable biosphere forever?
Initial NGO protest has caused the German science ministry to temporarily suspend permission until the project's impact is independently reviewed. This comes as the ship is just days away from the proposed experiment site, and continues to sail in the Southern Ocean in the hope that there will be a go-ahead shortly. If the review gives the experiment the thumbs-down, the ship will not carry it out. Please keep up the pressure and write to the German government demanding that the RV Polarstern turn around and return to port. Insist that Germany agree to a permanent ban on large-scale geo-engineering experiments and implementation, until all other options are exhausted, and global protocols are in place.
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