Should We Fertilize Oceans To Fight Global Warming?

The short answer is: No. Definitely not. But it could theoretically be possible.

Ecologists understand that iron is a limiting resource for big swaths of the world’s oceans. Availability of iron controls primary productivity—that is, how much plankton grow in oceans, and therefore, how much carbon they take in from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

In a 2004 study published in Science, researchers dumped about a ton of iron into the Antarctic Ocean. They estimated that their efforts created a 1000-square-kilometer plankton bloom which, in the end, transferred about 900 tons of carbon to deep ocean, where it will stay for hundreds of years. That’s enough to offset the effects of about 700 Americans’ yearly emissions from driving, and we could perhaps do way better. Another study found that when sections of ocean are fertilized by naturally occurring iron deposits, the sequestration rate is at least ten times higher.

We are far from even beginning to know what the side effects would be of dumping massive amounts of iron into the ocean. It is sure to be highly disruptive to existing ecosystems. We also don’t know how much it would cost, and whether the impact would scale in the way we expect.

We have climate solutions that we already know to be feasible and effective (solar panels! fewer cars! less meat!), so it probably doesn’t make sense to start recklessly altering major earth systems. But since those reasonable solutions seem to be off the table politically, it is possible to picture a world in which we have to start trying some of these unreasonable ones.

Striped Shore Crab // Pescadero, CA // April 2016

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More from my brother’s classroom in the great outdoors. I promise that I did not pick up this crab and move it to a more photogenic rock.

Plants Are People Too

Really enjoyed getting to know Anishinaabe plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s way of thinking the other day. She spoke on campus about what we can learn from plants. Not some sort of metaphor—Kimmerer draws from indigenous teachings to argue that we should see plants as sovereign, sentient beings. There’s some Western precedent for this, too; apparently Plato argued that plants have souls.

Such a view leads to some interesting perspectives. Kimmerer talked about how “humans and plants worked together to create corn,” a cool way of thinking about the breeding process that turned a Mexican wild grass into the most important food source in the world.

There’s more here than semantics, philosophy, or spirituality. Kimmerer argued that Western cultural dominance has imposed the idea that plants are objects—referred to as “it”—rather than the pronoun we’d use for a living being, and the pronouns that her Potawatomi language still uses. In her view, this objectification is a key precursor to the abuse and exploitation of nature.

For the bulk of human history and until very recently, Kimmerer’s view was the dominant one. She argued that our lives since the Industrial Revolution have been humanity’s first experiment in treating the world as if it isn’t alive. “The results are in, and they don’t look good,” she said. If the grim projections of our environmental future are to be believed, she’s certainly right.

Is Civilization Just A Fluke?

Okay, perhaps the title is a bit provocative. This from Seed Magazine captured my attention though:

To begin, we need to put our role on this planet in perspective by placing humanity and the Earth’s systems in a geological context. If you graph the range of global temperature variations over the past 100,000 years, most of it forms a wild, erratic sawtooth pattern as climatic variations have at turns scorched or frozen the world. But, about 10,000 years ago, temperature variation stabilized, and we entered what geologists call the Holocene epoch. This is the stable period during which agriculture and complex societies, including our own, developed and flourished.

Considering the fact that our modern globalized society has developed within these unusually stable conditions, it might come as no surprise that today’s hospitable environment is often taken for granted in investment decisions, political actions, and international agreements.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that civilization just happened to develop during a uniquely stable climate. What does it mean that human life as we know it has existed only in one fleeting stable window of geological time? Is a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle inherently more resilient than what we call civilization?

Probably not, but the passage above suggests that we might as well start thinking about our unstable climate—“suddenly and violently out of balance,” in Bill McKibben’s terms—as the norm, not the exception. If not from greenhouse gases, that stability was bound to end at some point, so we better start planning for our long-term future on this “tough new planet,” as McKibben says.

I’m taking a class on climate resilience this semester, so more on this to come.