Seeding the sea with fine iron powder to promote the growth of carbon dioxide-capturing algae may seem stuff off science fiction, but an Indian research team will be doing just that early next year.
Some experts say the process could be eligible for carbon credits under a United Nations mechanism. However, some environmentalists say that such initiatives will destroy the marine ecosystem.
In January 2009, the research team will launch an experiment, dubbed Lohafex, off the coast of Antarctica, to test the ocean iron-seeding process. The name is derived from fertilization experiment with iron, or loha as it is known in Hindi.
In iron-seeding experiments, tonnes of fine iron powder are strewn across the sea surface which promote the growth of phytoplankton. This is a class of marine organisms that live on the surface, and like plants use carbon dioxide to produce their own food and emit oxygen.
The research assumes urgency because there is a general perception that the UN would approve this too as a method to earn carbon credits. Carbon credits, generated by projects that reduce carbon dioxide emissions in developing countries, can be purchased by developed countries to fulfil their emission commitments mandated under the Kyoto Protocol defined by the UN.
The government-funded project, a first-of-its-kind for India, will entail sprinkling 20 tonnes of iron powder over a 2,500 sq. km area in the Scotia Sea. The National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research laboratory in Goa, will be the nodal centre for the project. It will also involve scientists and researchers from Italy and France besides others from India’s National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.
The ship used will be a German research vessel, the RSV Polarstern, and the cost from the Indian side is currently pegged at Rs15 crore. The Hindustan Times, which is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint, first reported on plans for such an experiment last July.
According to Victor Smetaceck, a German scientist of Indian origin who is part of the experiment, the two-and-a-half-month expedition may identify a certain class of phytoplankton that absorb carbon dioxide and sink faster than currently identified plankton species. “It’s important that the plankton be either eaten by other organisms and in one way or the other sink to depths greater than 500m for carbon dioxide to be effectively locked in,” he said. Above those depths ocean currents will simply force that carbon dioxide back to the surface.
The scientist, who is fromthe Alfred Weigner Institute in Bremenhaven, Germany, is a visiting professor at NIO.
Several start-up ventures, such as San Francisco-based Planktos Inc., have evinced interest in such experiments since they anticipate the carbon-credit-generation potential of iron fertilization. The firm is into restoring forests and damaged ocean habitats. Though there was no response to an email query, the company’s website, said, “Through iron-stimulated plankton blooms in the oceans and afforestation projects in Europe, we are able to generate carbon credits. We then sell these offsets to individuals and businesses that are looking to reduce their carbon footprint and lower their impact on climate change. The profits from the sale of these carbon credits finance further ecosystem restoration projects.”
Put simply, these projects are the marine equivalent of reforestation and afforestation schemes that were recently approved as valid clean development mechanism (CDM) methodologies by the apex UN Board that ratifies carbon credit projects. Though they still can’t be traded in the European markets till 2012, countries such as Canada and Germany are buying these credits generated from afforestation programmes, said Ram Babu, India managing director of Cantor CO2e, an emission trading firm. “Credits from marine (carbon) sequestration programmes are far from being considered valid, but you never know how the future turns out,” he added.
Another San Francisco company in the fray, Climos, generates something called Climosets, which companies can buy as offsets. It recently tied up with EcoSecurities, a top firm dealing with carbon credits, to push ocean iron fertilization as a technology eligible for CDM projects. In a press statement last month, Climos president Dan Whaley said the company “is committed to working with the best partners in the industry to bring a robust and verifiable approach for this new technology to market.”
Though the technique sounds plausible, a host of scientists say that such experiments don’t account for the other gases that may be emitted at the cost of capturing carbon.
“The water below the surface moves turbulently and gets mixed-up, so any nitrous oxide generated (as a waste product) later could turn up at places where the iron was deposited,” said John Cullen of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, in an email.
However, S.N.W. Naqvi, a senior NIO scientist involved with the experiment, rubbished such claims. “The proportion of nitrous oxide and methane generated from such processes is too little. It’s only methane trapped in sediments (below the seabed) that’s in sizeable quantities.”
Smetaceck himself says that current estimates by Planktos that “...every tonne of carbon sequestered equals about three tonnes of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and that at 1,000ft, carbon’s locked for decades, at 1,500ft, centuries, and at 3,000ft, a millennium” are grossly overestimated. “We are trying to show that current studies are too scanty and ill-researched for companies to come up with such claims,” he added.
N. Karthik of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said though he wasn’t aware of such an experiment, it would be tough to quantify the impact on the marine ecosystem. “In some respects, marine systems are even more fragile than terrestrial systems, so you never know how the iron could damage—if it does at all—its surrounding environment.”
But environmentalists are far more vocal in their protests. “Unless the location of this experiment is isolated, that is ensuring that the result of such tests don’t spill over into the rest of the ocean, it’s dangerous for the habitat,” said Sudershan Rodriguez, marine conservation analyst at ATREE, or The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, which works on marine biodiversity issues.
Sanju Gopal of Greenpeace India said that even though the experiment was in a controlled environment, the Antarctic region, being one ofthe last “pristine” environments, shouldn’t be subject to even experiments of this nature at all.
However Smetaceck believes that these concerns are misplaced. The experiment, he said, would be carried out in an eddy, an area where water currents flow in circles, thus effectively isolating the region concerned.
Further, even if such a method proved successful, it should never be a replacement for other methods of cutting down emissions. “That’s the problem we face,” he noted, “Even some of my fellow scientists think that such a method of carbon dioxide mitigation would invite tankers spewing iron all over the place and damage marine life. That’s not the point. We have to get the science right. And even if we do, this can’t be an excuse for nations to continue polluting and sprinkle iron dust on the ocean.”