A Not-So-Good Way to Curb Global Warming

I hate to rain on everyone’s curb-global-warming parade, as it’s both a critical and largely unresolved issue.

Algae Bloom
Photo:Future-PhD., Creative Commons, Flickr
But the newest idea – sprinkling tons of iron fertilizer on the ocean to cultivate more phytoplankton (which only incidentally absorbs CO2) – seems to me like a singularly bad idea. Planktos (PLKT.PK – $.025), the company behind the idea, says the concept is similar to planting forests full of carbon-inhaling trees, "..but in desolate stretches of ocean."

Pardon my scepticism, Planktos, but I don’t think we don’t know enough about ocean ecology to determine what is "desolate" and what is merely unoccupied. Just as we don’t know enough about genomes to interpret the repeat sequences, we don’t know enough about ocean ecology to arbitrarily decide whether isolation is equal to desolation or simply a balancing act. With genomes, the repeat sequences may be a sort of biological capacitor. With oceans, whose vastness still defies complete understanding, these desolate expanses may be biological alternators, keeping earth’s battery charged while running other vital systems. In fact, we don’t know enough about anything to be tampering with either oceans or genes, yet we do both in the mistaken impression that we are earth’s most intelligent species. This may be our eventual downfall.

Take the Pacific Ocean, which is heating up as a result of a pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). This pattern has a greater overall effect on ocean temperatures than either La Nina or El Nino. The cause and predictability of the PDO are not known; global warming may be a factor. Though solar radiation heats earth faster than water (and solar radiation intensifies with the thinning of the ozone layer), other effects must also be considered. One is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of junk – mainly plastic – the size of Africa, whose toxicity and reflectivity may be a contributing factor. It is most certainly preventing oxygen penetrating the water. A researcher visiting the patch recently reported 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton in the area.

Oceans themselves play a vital role in earth’s temperature. Ocean currents, collectively known as the Ocean Conveyor, distribute heat around the earth, moderating regional climates. Changes in the Ocean Conveyor can trigger climactic changes, and these changes can occur within a decade, based on fossil evidence. Moreover, these changes can be regional, producing "precipitous and disruptive shifts" which plunge certain areas into mini-Ice Ages while areas a thousand miles away enjoy relatively balmy temperatures. The impact of such a change on food production is inestimable.

Phytoplankon, also known as algae, are the basic fundament of oceanic food chains. They also determine how much light and oxygen are delivered to aquatic species. Algal blooms like red or brown tides are not caused so much by eutrophication (the result of excess nutrients like fertilizer in the water) but by viruses promoted by dissolved organic matter (like plastic). It is these viruses that trigger bloom occurrences. These algal blooms are not toxic in themselves, but they do prevent sunlight from penetrating deeper ocean layers, and the positive effects of photoplankton – in absorbing excess CO2 – are outweighed by the considerable risks to marine life if plankton levels are artificially increased. Deeper layers of the ocean will become acidic faster as decomposing, CO2-laden algae sink, reducing both oxygen levels and the nutritional quality of the plankton itself. These plankton – the first step in an aquatic food chain, which rises up through krill to shellfish, fish, seals and finally whales – have achieved a delicate ecological balance already significantly impacted by humans. To upset that balance further is an invitation to disaster.

Increasing phytoplankton to absorb excess CO2 (generated by 20th-century human excesses) will destroy the last, and relatively untampered-with, ecological balancing system we have left, since much of the earth’s surface is already severely polluted. Planktos’ business plan, to make money by selling carbon offset credits (earned by creating blooms of phytoplankton), is flawed, self-serving and rapacious.

The upside: Planktos’ progress is momentarily stalled by lack of funding and opposition from environmental groups. The downside: some other company with more money than sense will emerge to take up this misbegotten cause, and earth’s status as a habitable planet will decline even further, leaving not just seals and whales but humans, its most intelligent species, perilously close to extinction.

Disclosure: I don’t own Planktos stock.

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Algae Bloom
Photo:tuchodi, Creative Commons, Flickr