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Scientific research on the role of iron in the ocean proceeded from 1993 until 2000. Stimulated by very broad scientific discussions, the research was quite exciting and successful. What is not widely known, but has certainly been publicized, is that concurrent to the scientific research, were plans for commercial fertilization of the ocean.

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Several patents have been issued for fertilization procedures using iron, and possible seeding of the ocean with other nutrients such as ammonium and iron to spur fish production.

imageSo here's what was laid out in one of the plans for ocean fertilization, as reported in the popular literature (Wired magazine): 200 ships, 8.1 million tons of iron, 16 million square miles of high-nutrient low-chlorophyll ocean, and a price tag of $16 billion was proposed to sequester 8 gigatons of atmospheric CO2 per year.

imageNow one can certainly challenge the numbers quoted, but an important point is that popular magazines are not the ideal forum for scientific communication or debate. In the last ten years, my primary source of information on the commercial applications of iron fertilization have been the Sunday Times of London, Wired magazine, Discover magazine, and sometimes the New Scientist. None provide a good opportunity to look at some of these issues broadly.

Which brings up another important point. Time has flown by since the 1991 consensus statement and yet it has not been formally reassessed.

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In 1991, this was the ASLO statement. In 1997, this was a quote from one of the proponents of commercial application of iron for CO2 abatement: "The response of much of the oceanographic community has been negative, but after careful study some key oceanographers have endorsed the validity of the project. Some are on our Advisory Board or have consulting contracts with us." I'm not saying this is an assessment of scientific consensus. I'm saying that since 1991, scientists have not polled the scientific community to see where they stand on the issue of geo-engineering. It's pretty much up to any one of us to decide what the opinion is. One reason we're having the workshop is to reassess where this assembled group of prominent scientists stands on the issue of commercialization.

Let's now look at three ideas for fertilizing the ocean. The first was mentioned earlier by Dave Karl, which entails fertilizing blue waters of the open ocean. These are not the waters where you find large excesses of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients that are gobbled up when only iron is added.

imageIn the blue waters of the ocean, perhaps fertilization with iron, or iron and phosphorus, could stimulate the process of nitrogen fixation, and this could, in principle, sequester carbon by fundamental transformation of the food web of these gigantic ocean ecosystems. This idea was publicized by Carboncorp USA (added note: see www.planktos.com for related material). This information comes from their Web page, which is no longer posted. They talk about using a fertilizer module that can be put on commercial shipping traffic, which is a very efficient way to deliver fertilizers. Using information on where and when to do it, commercial shipping traffic could deposit nutrients in the water to stimulate the growth response of phytoplankton. Of course this idea is still in the early stages. The company stated in their information statements that chartering modern oceanographic research ships in collaboration with leading oceanographic institutes will provide scientific verification and validation---very important functions that would be necessary for any plans like this to succeed.

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