Plankton Evangelist

Energy & Sustainability Science
Plankton Evangelist
To the ores: Russ George (in Hawaiian shirt) looks over the mixing barrel as his team deploys iron oxide in the North Pacific in 2002.

Back in 2002, eco-maverick Russ George buttonholed veteran rock star Neil Young and asked an unusual favor. George was living part-time on a sailboat on a dock in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had learned that Young’s 90-year-old Baltic schooner was moored just four slips away. With the in-your-face enthusiasm that is his trademark, George brazenly asked to hitch a ride on Young’s boat so that he could perform an experiment to revitalize the ocean.

The idea was simple enough: scatter some finely powdered hematite, or red iron oxide, which phyto-plankton require as a kind of catalyst when they grow. Phytoplankton are the tiniest sea plants, at the bottom of the oceanic food chain. Krill eat them, and fish eat krill, and penguins and polar bears eat fish.

George liked the idea of sustaining ocean wildlife, but this wasn’t his only motive. When phytoplankton grow, they absorb about 100,000 atoms of carbon for every atom of iron they consume. Do the math, and you find that just 1 ton of iron could fix 367,000 tons of CO2. Here, then, was a bargain-basement plan for carbon sequestration. George’s ultimate goal was nothing less than to reverse the greenhouse effect.

Young didn’t say yes but he didn’t say no. The next day, however, George received a visit from the captain of Young’s vessel, who told him that he could simply borrow the boat and crew for a month and a half.

Initially George had a bit of trouble rounding up some affordable hematite dust. He needed particles about 0.5 micron in diameter, to minimize their sink rate and keep them suspended in the upper layer of the ocean where phytoplankton live. A mineral processing company offered to custom-mill some iron ore for $10,000 a ton, but when he pleaded poverty they took pity on him and told him there was a simpler option. He could buy red iron oxide powder as a paint pigment, off the shelf for $700 a ton, from a supplier in Oakland.

So George drove his Ford Taurus over to Oakland with a couple of plastic barrels, filled them with the compound, picked up a couple of bilge pumps and some other necessary items, and in a modern rewrite of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure, set sail to Hawaii on his personal mission to save the planet.

Four hundred miles east of the Big Island, he mixed the paint pigment with water, pumped it over the side, and watched as it formed a broad, red swath behind the boat. Later he checked data from NASA’s SeaWiFS satellite, which has a chlorophyll camera mounted on it, taking pictures in the 552-nanometer spectral line. He felt pretty sure that his mission had been a success.

A Garage Experimenter

The son of a nuclear chemist with the Atomic Energy Commission, young Darcy Russell George grew up in a house full of science. “Every room in the house had physics and chemistry journals lying around,” he recalls. “I used to wander through the desert with my father, scrounging uranium ore.”

Today George, 59, lives near Half Moon Bay, Calif., and describes himself self-deprecatingly as a “garage experimenter.” Yet he received a Ph.D. equivalency from the Canadian government after he abandoned his U.S. education to avoid the Vietnam draft, and he has a colorful history of talking major laboratories such as SRI International into letting him use their facilities. He even secured an invitation to appear before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, in July 2007, to make a presentation on the phytoplankton seeding concept.

Over the years, George has started several “cold fusion” and carbon offset companies, and critics say he can exaggerate the scientific basis and potential of his ventures. George concedes he’s a risk-taker but says his critics have their own agendas. Yes, he says, plankton seeding needs more research; that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.

The seeding idea originated with a Moss Landing, Calif., oceanographer named John Martin. In 1986, Martin came up with a new and simple proposal to explain why phytoplankton populations are so sparse in the Antarctic (Southern) Ocean, the equatorial Pacific, and the Gulf of Alaska. He thought it could be simply a matter of iron deficiency. Closer to shore, especially where the climate is dry, plankton thrive on iron-laden dust that blows out and settles into the sea.

After performing a few experiments, Martin confirmed his hypothesis and published a paper in Nature. He then calculated that phytoplankton could be so amazingly effective at taking CO2 out of the atmosphere that a few hundred thousands of tons of iron could undo global warming. “Give me half a tanker of iron and I will give you an ice age,” he joked to colleagues at a conference.

The quip lived on to haunt Martin. To many environmentalists it was no laughing matter. From their point of view, the idea was appalling.

First, it would entail tampering with Nature. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has disparaged the whole concept of “geo-engineering,” stating that it is “largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side effects.”

Second, it would be treating the symptoms, not the cause. “Climate change should be tackled by reducing emissions, not by altering ocean ecosystems,” complained biologist Dr. Paul Johnston, head of Greenpeace International’s Science Unit. In other words, solving the problem of global warming is acceptable only by reforming bad practices, not by fixing things so that industry can continue to do business as usual.

Russ George offers three points in rebuttal.

First, to reduce CO2 concentrations simply by scaling back industrial output will take decades, even if it is economically and politically feasible, which is open to doubt.

Second, carbon sequestration by other methods would be hugely expensive and grossly inefficient compared with the phytoplankton scheme.

Third, there is another, more urgent problem. Satellite assessments indicate that ocean chlorophyll has diminished by 12% in the Southern Ocean, 17% in the North Atlantic, 26% in the North Pacific, and 50% in subtropical oceans since measurements began in the 1980s. This translates as a loss of 1% per year of “ocean forests,” with a major negative impact on fish populations. The obvious way to reverse this trend is by encouraging phytoplankton to grow.

From the Galapagos to the Canary Islands

After his improvised experiment on Neil Young’s boat, George started looking for ways to fund a larger-scale initiative, and saw nothing wrong with the profit motive as a way to move things faster. Carbon offsets sell for more than $10 a ton. What if he could induce phytoplankton to sequester a million tons? He made this pitch to a venture capitalist, who promptly wrote a check for $50,000.

“He said he thought I needed some gas money,” George recalls.

The VC pledged to raise the rest of the funding for an iron dust dumping mission if George would do the work. He founded a company that he named Planktos Corp., and bought a research ship for $700,000, ready to fulfill Plan A. “We retained a crew, and aimed to sail to the Galapagos Islands,” he says. The Galapagos were an ideal location, being surrounded by a large natural plankton bloom in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, an area that’s otherwise mostly lifeless. If Planktos could seed the edge of the existing area, the results should easily be visible via satellite.

Unfortunately, George’s tendency to talk publicly, enthusiastically, and volubly provoked a massive negative response. It started when he made the mistake of referring to his microscopic dust particles as “nanoparticles.”

Nano is not a good word in environmental circles. The Canadian environmental group ETC Group took note and launched an all-out offensive, denouncing the plan as a “dangerous experiment.” As George tells it, “They sent delegations to the Ecuadorean government, claiming that we would dump American toxic waste which would poison the seas and kill off thousands of unique species. We explained that the Galapagos is a marine oasis precisely because it already has iron in the ocean around it. But the Ecuadorean government blocked us.”

Undeterred, he tried Plan B. Near the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, 500 million tons of dust blow into the ocean every year. “But there’s a window when the African dust doesn’t blow,” George explains. “If you put iron into the water in December or January, you should get a three-month plankton bloom.”

He received permission from all the relevant authorities and was ready to sail from Miami when two armed agents from the EPA turned up at George’s office. Apparently, ETC and Greenpeace had alerted them. Since the ship wasn’t carrying any iron dust at that point, it could not be prevented from leaving harbor. So, the team sailed for Bermuda — where they were stopped and inspected again. “The Spanish press described us as a toxic waste pirate vessel,” George recalls.

Ironically, George had impeccably green credentials, having been an early Greenpeace activist. “I sailed on Rainbow Warrior to save the whales,” he says. “And for the voyage to the Canary Islands, I’d hired Peter Willcox as the captain.” Willcox had captained Rainbow Warrior and is a hero among environmentalists, even meriting his own Wikipedia entry.

It made no difference; Greenpeace was still opposed to plankton seeding, and George believes that the “dark green” groups’ motives were not entirely pure. “They were making millions in donations from their campaign against Planktos,” he says. When he reached the Canary Islands, the Spanish government buckled under pressure from environmentalists and refused permission. The mission was aborted, and George lost his investors.

Don’t Call It Carbon Sequestration

In the meantime, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, had been pursing its own plankton plan on an academic, nonprofit basis, using its research vessel, the Polarstern. With deeper pockets, better credentials, and less in-your-face enthusiasm, AWI emerged victorious from its own series of battles with outraged environmentalists and announced in January 2009 that it had secured all necessary permits to conduct an iron-seeding voyage.

The institute insisted, however, that this had nothing to do with the controversial topic of carbon sequestration. “A large number of reports are circulating on the internet and in the international press claiming that the Alfred Wegener Institute is conducting the experiment to test the geo-engineering option of ocean fertilization as a means to sequester large quantities of carbon oxide from the atmosphere,” Dr. Karin Lochte, director of AWI, noted in a prepared statement. “This is definitely not the case. … We hope that through this experiment we will be able to contribute to a better understanding of ocean biogeochemistry and pelagic ecosystem functioning.”

Indeed. The satellite data, however, spoke for itself. After the Polarstern released 6 metric tons (6.6 tons) of iron on Jan. 27, satellite images showed a clearly visible plankton bloom on Feb. 14.

George was delighted, issuing his own press release proclaiming that the phytoplankton “will produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of krill and other zooplankton. The next step on that food chain are the baby calves of the Southern Ocean Great Whales, as the new pasture is within their traditional nursery. The food chain formula tells us to expect tens of thousands of tonnes of whales being nourished from this wonderful gesture.”

By this time he had abandoned Planktos Corp. and started a new venture named Planktos Science. “We’re now a private company,” he explains, “no longer required by the SEC to be transparent, and we’re going to keep our mouths shut, because we know that there are groups that will spend millions of dollars to kill us.”

He remains convinced that money is a major issue motivating his adversaries. “The first Kyoto target is to solve 10 percent of the CO2 problem,” he explains, “which many people believe will cost around $400 billion. Now, suppose we come along and say we may solve 50 percent of the problem for $4 billion. If you are in a company expecting to get a slice of the $400 billion, you’re going to be pissed.”

In March, AWI reported that its Southern Ocean experiment captured little carbon, because a previous plankton bloom had depleted key nutrients. Other regions, George says, would be more suitable.

In any case, like AWI, George is not citing carbon sequestration as his primary goal anymore. “My best traction right now is to deal with governments who are getting desperate about their fisheries,” he says. Fish, after all, ultimately feed on phytoplankton.

Whether this strategy will keep him under the environmental radar remains to be seen. If he fails to keep a low enough profile, and his diplomatic skills prove to be insufficient or ineffective, George may yet have to try Plan C in his mission to save the planet: persuade Neil Young to buy a bigger boat.

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Charles Platt

Charles Platt is a contributing editor to Make magazine, which has published more than 50 of his articles. Six of his books are available from Make: Books

Make: Electronics, an introductory guide, now available in its second edition.

Make: More Electronics, a sequel that greatly extends the scope of the first book.

Encyclopedia of Electronic Components, volumes 1, 2, and 3 (the third written in collaboration with Fredrik Jansson).

Make: Tools, which uses the same teaching techniques as Make: Electronics to explore and explain the use of workshop tools.

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