14:45 17 October 2012 by Michael Marshall
George was previously CEO of Planktos, a company that sought to sell carbon credits off the back of iron fertilisation – and Smetacek and other researchers fear that such financially motivated endeavours will make basic research in the field difficult.
“This is extremely unhelpful for those of us wanting to do some serious work on iron fertilisation,” says Richard Lampitt of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre.
Both researchers argue that tests of geoengineering should be run as a public good, but not for profit as George has attempted in the past.
Lampitt is a member of the In-Situ Iron Studies (ISIS) Consortium. This calls for more experiments on iron fertilisation, but also advocates a strict code of conduct that includes carrying out research openly and abiding by the London Convention. Lampitt and other ISIS members yesterday issued a statement criticising George for ignoring these principles.
Not everyone agrees that the field test was immoral. Fish farms and sewage dumping regularly fertilise the ocean, but do not draw the same level of ire, argues Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. “Apparently, dumping raw sewage simply to save the cost of sewage processing is less repugnant than fertilising the ocean in hopes of increasing fish yields.”
New Scientist was unable to reach George for comment. In his latest endeavour, he appears to have been assisted by Haida villagers. Guujaww, the president of the Haida Nation, confirmed that the iron fertilisation experiment took place and told New Scientist that George “convinced one of our villages that this was good”.
In theory at least, dumping iron could boost the ocean ecosystem, improving the Haida’s fisheries. Dust from a 2008 volcanic eruption in Alaska may have caused a plankton bloom, leading to record salmon populations in 2010 (Fisheries and Oceanography, doi.org/jjb).
Satellite pictures taken at the time (see above) suggest an increase in phytoplankton to the west of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, although it is not clear that this was a direct consequence of the iron dumping, as such blooms happen regularly naturally.
“Determining the local effects of iron fertilisation against the background of natural variations is difficult, and impacts on fisheries, ocean biota and carbon cycling harder still”, say the ISIS team in their statement.