Multiple ocean labs, scientists and businesses have explored fertilization. Beginning in 1993, thirteen research teams completed ocean trials demonstrating that phytoplankton blooms can be stimulated by iron augmentation. Controversy remains over the effectiveness of atmospheric CO 2 sequestration and ecological effects. The most recent open ocean trials of ocean iron fertilization were in 2009 (January to March) in the South Atlantic by project Lohafex, and in July 2012 in the North Pacific off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC).
Fertilization occurs naturally when upwellings bring nutrient-rich water to the surface, as occurs when ocean currents meet an ocean bank or a sea mount. This form of fertilization produces the world's largest marine habitats. Fertilization can also occur when weather carries wind blown dust long distances over the ocean, or iron-rich minerals are carried into the ocean by glaciers, rivers and icebergs.
Consideration of iron's importance to phytoplankton growth and photosynthesis dates to the 1930s when English biologist Joseph Hart speculated that the ocean's great "desolate zones" (areas apparently rich in nutrients, but lacking in plankton activity or other sea life) might be iron-deficient. Little scientific discussion was recorded until the 1980s, when oceanographer John Martin of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories renewed controversy on the topic with his marine water nutrient analyses. His studies supported Hart's hypothesis. These "desolate" regions came to be called "high nutrient, low chlorophyll" (HNLC) zones.
The findings suggested that iron deficiency was limiting ocean productivity and offered an approach to mitigating climate change as well. Perhaps the most dramatic support for Martin's hypothesis came with the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Environmental scientistAndrew Watson analyzed global data from that eruption and calculated that it deposited approximately 40,000 tons of iron dust into oceans worldwide. This single fertilization event preceded an easily observed global decline in atmosphericCO 2 and a parallel pulsed increase in oxygen levels.
The parties to the London Dumping Convention adopted a non-binding resolution in 2008 on fertilization (labeled LC-LP.1(2008)). The resolution states that ocean fertilization activities, other than legitimate scientific research, "should be considered as contrary to the aims of the Convention and Protocol and do not currently qualify for any exemption from the definition of dumping". An Assessment Framework for Scientific Research Involving Ocean Fertilization, regulating the dumping of wastes at sea (labeled LC-LP.2(2010)) was adopted by the Contracting Parties to the Convention in October 2010 (LC 32/LP 5).
There are two ways of performing artificial iron fertilization: ship based direct into the ocean and atmospheric deployment.
Ship based deployment
Trials of ocean fertilization using iron sulphate added directly to the surface water from ships are described in detail in the experiment section below.
Iron-rich dust rising into the atmosphere is a primary source of ocean iron fertilization. For example, wind blown dust from the Sahara desert fertilizes the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon rainforest. The naturally occurring iron oxide in atmospheric dust reacts with hydrogen chloride from sea spray to produce iron chloride, which degrades methane and other greenhouse gases, brightens clouds and eventually falls with the rain in low concentration across a wide area of the globe. Unlike ship based deployment, no trials have been performed of increasing the natural level of atmospheric iron. Expanding this atmospheric source of iron could complement ship-based deployment.
Martin hypothesized that increasing phytoplankton photosynthesis could slow or even reverse global warming by sequestering CO 2 in the sea. He died shortly thereafter during preparations for Ironex I, a proof of concept research voyage, which was successfully carried out near the Galapagos Islands in 1993 by his colleagues at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Thereafter 12 international ocean studies examined the phenomenon:
EIFEX (European Iron Fertilization Experiment), A successful experiment conducted in 2004 in a mesoscale ocean eddy in the South Atlantic resulted in a bloom of diatoms, a large portion of which died and sank to the ocean floor when fertilization ended. In contrast to the LOHAFEX experiment, also conducted in a mesoscale eddy, the ocean in the selected area contained enough dissolved silicon for the diatoms to flourish.
CROZEX (CROZet natural iron bloom and Export experiment), 2005
A pilot project planned by Planktos, a U.S. company, was cancelled in 2008 for lack of funding. The company blamed environmental organizations for the failure.
LOHAFEX (Indian and German Iron Fertilization Experiment), 2009 Despite widespread opposition to LOHAFEX, on 26 January 2009 the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) gave clearance. The experiment was carried out in waters low in silicic acid, an essential nutrient for diatom growth. This affected sequestration efficacy. A 900 square kilometers (350 sq mi) portion of the southwest Atlantic was fertilized with iron sulfate. A large phytoplankton bloom was triggered. In the absence of diatoms, a relatively small amount of carbon was sequestered, because other phytoplankton are vulnerable to predation by zooplankton and do not sink rapidly upon death. These poor sequestration results led to suggestions that fertilization is not an effective carbon mitigation strategy in general. However, prior ocean fertilization experiments in high silica locations revealed much higher carbon sequestration rates because of diatom growth. LOHAFEX confirmed sequestration potential depends strongly upon appropriate siting.
The maximum possible result from iron fertilization, assuming the most favourable conditions and disregarding practical considerations, is 0.29 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing, offsetting 1/6 of current levels of anthropogenicCO 2 emissions. These benefits have been called into question by research suggesting that fertilization with iron may deplete other essential nutrients in the seawater causing reduced phytoplankton growth elsewhere — in other words, that iron concentrations limit growth more locally than they do on a global scale.
Role of iron
About 70% of the world's surface is covered in oceans. The part of these where light can penetrate is inhabited by algae (and other marine life). In some oceans, algae growth and reproduction is limited by the amount of iron. Iron is a vital micronutrient for phytoplankton growth and photosynthesis that has historically been delivered to the pelagic sea by dust storms from arid lands. This Aeolian dust contains 3–5% iron and its deposition has fallen nearly 25% in recent decades.
The Redfield ratio describes the relative atomic concentrations of critical nutrients in plankton biomass and is conventionally written "106 C: 16 N: 1 P." This expresses the fact that one atom of phosphorus and 16 of nitrogen are required to "fix" 106 carbon atoms (or 106 molecules of CO 2). Research expanded this constant to "106 C: 16 N: 1 P: .001 Fe" signifying that in iron deficient conditions each atom of iron can fix 106,000 atoms of carbon, or on a mass basis, each kilogram of iron can fix 83,000 kg of carbon dioxide. The 2004 EIFEX experiment reported a carbon dioxide to iron export ratio of nearly 3000 to 1. The atomic ratio would be approximately: "3000 C: 58,000 N: 3,600 P: 1 Fe".
Therefore, small amounts of iron (measured by mass parts per trillion) in HNLC zones can trigger large phytoplankton blooms on the order of 100,000 kilograms of plankton per kilogram of iron. The size of the iron particles is critical. Particles of 0.5–1 micrometer or less seem to be ideal both in terms of sink rate and bioavailability. Particles this small are easier for cyanobacteria and other phytoplankton to incorporate and the churning of surface waters keeps them in the euphotic or sunlit biologically active depths without sinking for long periods.
Atmospheric deposition is an important iron source. Satellite images and data (such as PODLER, MODIS, MSIR) combined with back-trajectory analyses identified natural sources of iron–containing dust. Iron-bearing dusts erode from soil and are transported by wind. Although most dust sources are situated in the Northern Hemisphere, the largest dust sources are located in northern and southern Africa, North America, central Asia and Australia.
Heterogeneous chemical reactions in the atmosphere modify the speciation of iron in dust and may affect the bioavailability of deposited iron. The soluble form of iron is much higher in aerosols than in soil (~0.5%). Several photo-chemical interactions with dissolved organic acids increase iron solubility in aerosols. Among these, photochemical reduction of oxalate-bound Fe(III) from iron-containing minerals is important. The organic ligand forms a surface complex with the Fe (III) metal center of an iron-containing mineral (such as hematite or goethite). On exposure to solar radiation the complex is converted to an excited energy state in which the ligand, acting as bridge and an electron donor, supplies an electron to Fe(III) producing soluble Fe(II). Consistent with this, studies documented a distinct diel variation in the concentrations of Fe (II) and Fe(III) in which daytime Fe(II) concentrations exceed those of Fe(III).
Volcanic ash as an iron source
Volcanic ash has a significant role in supplying the world's oceans with iron. Volcanic ash is composed of glass shards, pyrogenic minerals, lithic particles and other forms of ash that release nutrients at different rates depending on structure and the type of reaction caused by contact with water.
Increases of biogenic opal in the sediment record are associated with increased iron accumulation over the last million years. In August 2008, an eruption in the Aleutian Islands deposited ash in the nutrient-limited Northeast Pacific. This ash and iron deposition resulted in one of the largest phytoplankton blooms observed in the subarctic.
Air-sea exchange of CO 2
Previous instances of biological carbon sequestration triggered major climatic changes, lowering the temperature of the planet, such as the Azolla event. Plankton that generate calcium or siliconcarbonate skeletons, such as diatoms, coccolithophores and foraminifera, account for most direct sequestration. When these organisms die their carbonate skeletons sink relatively quickly and form a major component of the carbon-rich deep sea precipitation known as marine snow. Marine snow also includes fish fecal pellets and other organic detritus, and steadily falls thousands of meters below active plankton blooms.
Of the carbon-rich biomass generated by plankton blooms, half (or more) is generally consumed by grazing organisms (zooplankton, krill, small fish, etc.) but 20 to 30% sinks below 200 meters (660 ft) into the colder water strata below the thermocline. Much of this fixed carbon continues into the abyss, but a substantial percentage is redissolved and remineralized. At this depth, however, this carbon is now suspended in deep currents and effectively isolated from the atmosphere for centuries. (The surface to benthic cycling time for the ocean is approximately 4,000 years.)
Analysis and quantification
Evaluation of the biological effects and verification of the amount of carbon actually sequestered by any particular bloom involves a variety of measurements, combining ship-borne and remote sampling, submarine filtration traps, tracking buoy spectroscopy and satellite telemetry. Unpredictable ocean currents can remove experimental iron patches from the pelagic zone, invalidating the experiment.
During SOFeX, DMS concentrations increased by a factor of four inside the fertilized patch. Widescale iron fertilization of the Southern Ocean could lead to significant sulfur-triggered cooling in addition to that due to the CO 2 uptake and that due to the ocean's albedo increase, however the amount of cooling by this particular effect is very uncertain.
Beginning with the Kyoto Protocol, several countries and the European Union established carbon offset markets which trade certified emission reduction credits (CERs) and other types of carbon credit instruments. In 2007 CERs sold for approximately €15–20/ton COe 2. Iron fertilization is relatively inexpensive compared to scrubbing, direct injection and other industrial approaches, and can theoretically sequester for less than €5/ton CO 2, creating a substantial return. In August, 2010, Russia established a minimum price of €10/ton for offsets to reduce uncertainty for offset providers. Scientists have reported a 6–12% decline in global plankton production since 1980. A full-scale plankton restoration program could regenerate approximately 3–5 billion tons of sequestration capacity worth €50-100 billion in carbon offset value. However, a 2013 study indicates the cost versus benefits of iron fertilization puts it behind carbon capture and storage and carbon taxes.
Carbon is not considered "sequestered" unless it settles to the ocean floor where it may remain for millions of years. Most of the carbon that sinks beneath plankton blooms is dissolved and remineralized well above the seafloor and eventually (days to centuries) returns to the atmosphere, negating the original benefit.
Advocates argue that modern climate scientists and Kyoto Protocol policy makers define sequestration over much shorter time frames. For example, trees and grasslands are viewed as important carbon sinks. Forest biomass sequesters carbon for decades, but carbon that sinks below the marine thermocline (100–200 meters) is removed from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, whether it is remineralized or not. Since deep ocean currents take so long to resurface, their carbon content is effectively sequestered by the criterion in use today.
While ocean iron fertilization could represent a potent means to slow global warming current debate raises a variety of concerns.
The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who would take the action. The side effects of large-scale iron fertilization are not yet quantified. Creating phytoplankton blooms in iron-poor areas is like watering the desert: in effect it changes one type of ecosystem into another. The argument can be applied in reverse, by considering emissions to be the action and remediation an attempt to partially offset the damage.
Fertilization advocates respond that algal blooms have occurred naturally for millions of years with no observed ill effects. The Azolla event occurred around 49 million years ago and accomplished what fertilization is intended to achieve (but on a larger scale).
20th-century phytoplankton decline
While advocates argue that iron addition would help to reverse a supposed decline in phytoplankton, this decline may not be real. One study reported a decline in ocean productivity comparing the 1979–1986 and 1997–2000 periods, but two others found increases in phytoplankton. A 2010 study of oceanic transparency since 1899 and in situ chlorophyll measurements concluded that oceanic phytoplankton medians decreased by ~1% per year over that century.
Critics are concerned that fertilization will create harmful algal blooms (HAB). The species that respond most strongly to fertilization vary by location and other factors and could possibly include species that cause red tides and other toxic phenomena. These factors affect only near-shore waters, although they show that increased phytoplankton populations are not universally benign.
Most species of phytoplankton are harmless or beneficial, given that they constitute the base of the marine food chain. Fertilization increases phytoplankton only in the open oceans (far from shore) where iron deficiency is substantial. Most coastal waters are replete with iron and adding more has no useful effect.
A 2010 study of iron fertilization in an oceanic high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll environment, however, found that fertilized Pseudo-nitzschia diatom spp., which are generally nontoxic in the open ocean, began producing toxic levels of domoic acid. Even short-lived blooms containing such toxins could have detrimental effects on marine food webs.
Depending upon the composition and timing of delivery, iron infusions could preferentially favor certain species and alter surface ecosystems to unknown effect. Population explosions of jellyfish, which disturb the food chain impacting whale populations or fisheries, are unlikely as iron fertilization experiments are conducted in high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll waters that favor the growth of larger diatoms over small flagellates. This has been shown to lead to increased abundance of fish and whales over jellyfish. A 2010 study showed that iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas which, the authors argue, raises "serious concerns over the net benefit and sustainability of large-scale iron fertilizations". Nitrogen released by cetaceans and iron chelate are a significant benefit to the marine food chain in addition to sequestering carbon for long periods of time.
A 2009 study tested the potential of iron fertilization to reduce both atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidity using a global ocean carbon model. The study showed that an optimized regime of micronutrient introduction would reduce the predicted increase of atmospheric CO2 by more than 20 percent. Unfortunately, the impact on ocean acidification would be split, with a decrease in acidification in surface waters but an increase in acidification in the deep ocean.
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Global Change and Oceanic Primary Productivity: Effects of Ocean-Atmosphere-Biological Feedbacks - A. J. Miller et al., 2003.
The Processes of the Ocean's Biological Pump and CO2 Sequestration - Jun Nishioka, 2002.
Micronutrient iron and ocean productivity
Open Ocean Iron Fertilization for Scientific Study and Carbon Sequestration - K. Coale, 2001.
Ocean Fertilisation - V. Smetecek, 2004.
Sequestration of CO2 by Ocean Fertilization - M. Markels and R. Barber, 2001.
Effect of In-Situ Fertilization on Phytoplankton Growth and Biological Carbon Fixation In the Ocean - T. Yoshimura and D. Tsumune, 2005.
Stimulating the Ocean Biological Carbon Pump by Iron Fertilization - Jun Nishioka, 2003.
Iron Fertilization of the Oceans: Reconciliing Commercial Claims with Published Models - P. Lam & S. Chisholm, 2002.
Coale KH, Johnson KS, Fitzwater SE, et al. (October 1996). "A massive phytoplankton bloom induced by an ecosystem-scale iron fertilization experiment in the equatorial Pacific Ocean". Nature. 383 (6600): 495–501. Bibcode:1996Natur.383..495C. doi:10.1038/383495a0. PMID18680864. S2CID 41323790.
Kent Cavender-Bares; et al. (March 1999). "Differential Response of Equatorial Pacific Phytoplankton to Iron Fertilization". Limnology and Oceanography. 44 (2): 237–246. Bibcode:1999LimOc..44..237C. doi:10.4319/lo.1999.44.2.0237. JSTOR 2670596.
Ocean biomass carbon sequestration
J.A. Raven and P.G. Falkowski (June 1999). "Oceanic Sinks for Atmospheric CO2". Plant, Cell and Environment. 22 (6): 741–75. doi:10.1046/j.1365-3040.1999.00419.x.
Jefferson T. Turner (February 2002). "Zooplankton Fecal Pellets, Marine Snow and Sinking Phytoplankton Blooms" (PDF). Aquatic Microbial Ecology. 27 (1): 57–102. doi:10.3354/ame027057.
Paul Falkowski; et al. (2003). "4. Phytoplankton and Their Role in Primary, New and Export Production". In Fasham, M. J. R. (ed.). Ocean Biogeochemistry. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-42398-0.
Markels, M; R T Barber (2001). "Sequestration of CO2 by Ocean Fertilization". Proc 1st Nat. Conf. on Carbon Sequestration. Washington, DC.
Ocean carbon cycle modeling
Andrew Watson; James Orr (2003). "5. Carbon Dioxide Fluxes in the Global Ocean". In Fasham, M. J. R. (ed.). Ocean Biogeochemistry. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-42398-0.
J.L. Sarmiento; J.C. Orr (December 1991). "Three-Dimensional Simulations of the Impact of Southern Ocean Nutrient Depletion on Atmospheric CO2 and Ocean Chemistry". Limnology and Oceanography. 36 (8): 1928–50. Bibcode:1991LimOc..36.1928S. doi:10.4319/lo.19220.127.116.118. JSTOR 2837725.
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2009). Scientific Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Fertilization on Marine Biodiversity. Montreal, Technical Series No. 45, 53 pages
Ocean Gardening Using Iron Fertilizer
Iron 'Fertilization' Causes Plankton Bloom - National Science Foundation
Ocean Carbon Sequestration Abstracts - US Department of Energy
After the SOIREE: Testing the Limits of Iron Fertilization - NASA
The Geritol Effect - University of Southern California
Seeds of Iron to Mitigate Climate Change- treehugger.com
Dumping Iron - Wired News
Global Impact of Ocean Nourishment - I.S.F. Jones, Berkeley
Fertilizing the Ocean with Iron - First article in a six-part series from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Oceanus magazine
Oschlies, A., W. Koeve, W. Rickels, and K. Rehdanz (2010). "Side effects and accounting aspects of hypothetical large-scale southern ocean iron fertilization" (PDF). Biogeosciences Discussions. 7 (2): 2949–2995. doi:10.5194/bgd-7-2949-2010.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
The Iron Shore Of Science Journalism
An Open Letter to the Marine Science Community: Has Personal Bias Derailed Science?
Canadian Fishing at the Grand Banks, Zebra Mussels, and Iron's Effect on Plankton: an example of plausible connections -Chris Yukna (Ecole des Mines, France)
Basu, Sourish (September 2007). "Oceangoing Iron: A venture to profit from a CO2-eating algae bloom riles scientists". Scientific American. 297 (4). Scientific American, Inc. (published October 2007). pp. 23–24. Retrieved 2008-08-04. Note: Only first two paragraphs are available free on-line