Recently, news broke that a scientist had unilaterally launched a geo-engineering experiment — dumping iron sulfate and iron oxide into the Pacific Ocean. There were two goals to the project: First, grow a massive plankton bloom which would store atmospheric carbon the same way that trees take in and store atmospheric carbon; second, use that plankton as a food source to restore salmon populations in the northern Pacific. If it sounds like those two goals are kind of fundamentally contradictory — if the salmon eat the plankton, then the stored carbon is going to end up back in the atmosphere, not indefinitely stored — well, you're right.
But the project showed that it's relatively easy for a small group of people to experiment on Earth's ecosystem without any oversight or approval from the global community at large. That's why the story made headlines. And it's why Scientific American's David Biello did a two-part feature on the experiment, writing about the background and interviewing Russ George, the scientist who launched the project.
George's ideas do have a basis in science. In essence, he's trying to replicate the effects of a volcanic eruption, which are associated with plankton blooms. George believes that the blooms are caused by large depositions of the nutrient iron. And, although other scientists think his goal of feeding salmon would defeat his goal of storing carbon, George thinks their findings are wrong. And he thinks this study will prove it. As a bonus, he's also hoping that the effect on salmon will reinvigorate the economy of a nearby Haida fishing village.
As for the legality of the project, here's what George told Scientific American:
This is Canada so it's British law, not American law. In British law, if you want to do something and you're not sure whether it's legal or not, you commission officers of the court to do an analysis and produce an official document, a legal opinion as to whether it breaks the law or not. This was done. The opinion was that with comparative studies and international laws we were absolutely in the clear. The claim that this is illegal is the design of the people who want to burn the books. This is the life of the village that they're trying to kill.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.