Businessman executes huge, probably illegal geo-engineering scheme. Just ‘cuz.

A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.
A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.Courtesy NASA
Have you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.

Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.

I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.

And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.

The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.

Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?

But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?


Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.

A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.

The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).

George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.

The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.

So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?

And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?

Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!

(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous3000's picture
Anonymous3000 says:

Tears for Fears said "Everybody wants to rule the world."

posted on Wed, 10/17/2012 - 2:38pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Well, sure. I think that's why I wrote "as Tears for Fears almost said."

(I say "I think that's why I wrote" because I tripped and hit my mouth on a toad on the way to work yesterday, and, consequently, I hallucinated violently through most of the day. It's difficult to be sure about anything that happened during that period.)

posted on Wed, 10/17/2012 - 3:55pm
georgyporgy's picture
georgyporgy says:

scientists perform experiments on the human population all the time without our knowledge or consent - look at the bioengineering of food that has been tauted as an awesome success which has prevented starvation for decades but is now being shown to cause horrible diseases - why not a little experimentation on nature? nature can handle itself against us

posted on Sat, 10/20/2012 - 12:23pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I can't quite tell if you're be facetious or not.

Also, to which horrible diseases are you referring?

posted on Mon, 10/22/2012 - 5:05pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I think it should be pointed out, too, that Russ George (as far as I can tell) isn't a scientist—he's an entrepreneur. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but this incident has been portrayed more as a business venture than a scientific experiment.

George himself insists that this is a good thing for the planet, and that bold (or, some would say, risky) operations like this are necessary to counteract damage we've already done to the planet.

And that's another point: a lot of scientists consider our ongoing impact on the planet—specifically the release of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans—to be an experiment in itself. How good or bad the results are for humanity and the other species living here won't be clear until the experiment has been run. What's more, for better or worse, you're participating in this experiment every day: when you drive your car, when you use electricity, when you use the Internet, and when you eat (food production, GMO or otherwise, has a tremendous impact on the planet).

I'm not necessarily arguing for or against geo-engineering projects like this one. I just kind of resent the notion that, like, "scientists" are some sort of dangerous other kind of person, just Frankensteining it up out there, while the rest of us are just agency-free victims of their experimentation. I've seen too many completely un-thought-out Facebook reposts of half truths to think that that's anything other than a super lazy way to participate in the world.

posted on Mon, 10/22/2012 - 5:22pm

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