Ocean Fertilization Experiment Gone Wrong

Written by on October 17, 2012 in Technology
Chlorophyll concentrations (a way to monitor plankton blooms) in August 2012. Image credit Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center, Nasa.

Chlorophyll concentrations (a way to monitor plankton blooms) in August 2012. Image credit Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center, Nasa.

The massive algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean this summer was caused by a California company’s ocean fertilization experiment.

Ocean fertilization, a method of decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, is a controversial topic among scientists.  It involves dumping iron into the ocean to increase plankton concentrations; the plankton soak up some atmospheric carbon dioxide, then die and sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Here’s a summary of what happened:

  • Russ George, a California businessman, acknowledged that his company, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., led an “ocean fertilization experiment” back in July
  • This involved dumping about 100 tons of iron sulfate into the ocean off the coast of Canada’s British Columbia
  • George claims it was an attempt to help the Haida nation, a local tribe, with their salmon run, as it would increase algae populations which would create more food for salmon
  • Instead of helping, it caused a massive (up to 10,000 sq km) algae bloom and violated at least two international laws

“The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention,” said the president of the Haida nation, Guujaaw.

“Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation,” John Cullen, an oceanographer at Dalhousie University, told The Guardian.  “History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.”

So, not only was their experiment dangerous and scientifically questionable, but dumping 100 tons of iron sulfate “appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions,” said Kristina Gjerde, an advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation,” Gjerde continued.  “This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research.”

A harmful algal bloom in the waters of La Jolla, San Diego County, California. Photo credit: Kai Schumann, NOAA.

A harmful algal bloom in the waters of La Jolla, San Diego County, California. Photo credit: Kai Schumann, NOAA.

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Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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  1. Paul C. Rivera says:

    The experiment was not ocean fertilization, it is ocean pollution. It does not help the salmon industry and does not reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. And CO2 is not the major cause of global warming/climate change problem. You may want to study and share our new discovery for your perusal. You can get a free copy of the ocean-meteo article at (link no longer active).

  2. Emily says:

    Paul-
    Thanks for your comment and for the link. We always appreciate new resources! I definitely agree with the pollution part. And, saying it was done to help the salmon industry does seem more like a good excuse than a legitimate reason. That being said, there are plenty of people out there who do think that ocean fertilization is a realistic solution to global warming.

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