Scientific American goes inside the rogue geo-engineering story

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.

Read David Biello's interview with Russ George

Read David Biello's story about the geo-engineering experiment


  1.   If salmon are like cattle who eat 10 pounds of grain for every pound of flesh they produce, then the other nine pounds will end up on the sea floor as salmon droppings. The plankton that don’t get eaten will settle out and form the next cliffs of Dover some eons in the future just as they have been doing for the past several hundred million years.

    Seen as the plankton population has declined some 40% since 1950 we probably ought to be looking at how to restore plankton to the sea. We’ll never have perfect knowledge so at some point we’ll have to move ahead and restore the plankton. 

    1. Plankton shells have been settling out for millions of years. The plankton themselves have been living and dying, spreading, and sometimes – when the conditions and type are just right – forming blooms that choke out and poison other life.

      There sea has its weeds and invasives, just like land. Anyone who’s seen what happens when there are excess nutrients in an ocean, pond, or even home aquarium knows promoting algae is something to be careful about.

        1. If we’re being pedantic, it depends on the plankton. Beforewepost mentioned the cliffs of Dover, which are mostly scales from Haptophyta; those are outside the cells and I think are supposed to come off in attacks.

          It’s noy my point, though. Plankton don’t actually just get eaten or settle out, as if they were generic food flakes. They’re a whole ecology of different living things, and changing that can have larger effects.

    2. Of the other 9 pounds, ~8 pounds go to respiration, not solid waste.  It’s breathed out as… carbon dioxide.

    3. Not all salmon droppings. Most will be metabolized into CO2, the same way you exhale much of the weight of food you eat.

  2. Without painting with too broad of a brush, I’ve always been highly skeptical of so-called geoengineering as a means to mitigate climate impacts. Eco and climate systems are extremely complex and their interdependencies are not well understood, so the idea of using some process to try and clean up the atmosphere after the fact is fraught with trouble to say the least. It is also the wrong way to approach the problem in general: it is far less complicated and costly to regulate and clean pollutants at the source rather than wait until they are dispersed through the global atmosphere. Pushing GeoEngineering attempts are just the desperate last throes of untenable energy companies to find a way to continue business and operations as usual.

    1. It’s funny (well not funny, maybe) that we understand the concept of “unintended consequences” in everything except, you know, the entire world.

  3. I’m not sure that this is a good idea either without rigorous testing, but the idea may have merit other beyond green house gas reduction. If they can titrate the amount of iron compounds to avoid the possible bad effects mentioned in the linked article, the increased salmon population helps the fishery and the communities that depend on it, notably Native American/First Nations, which then would make salmon farming less attractive by making higher quality wild-caught salmon less expensive and more plentiful (and salmon farming is way problematic), and it would feed bears, who we all know poo in the woods, which fertilizes trees.

    Edit Mo’ salmon is more food for resident killer whales, too. A nice by-product could be less predation of sea otters, which directly affects sea urchin populations. Sea urchins wreak havoc on kelp forests when there a no sea otters to eat them, and some sea otter populations have declined as much as 90% in recent years.

    1. They never said the Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, are in Alaska. They are on the Gulf of Alaska and across the Dixon Entrance from Alaska. You probably are reacting on the assertion that “he”, Russ George, is “a scientist in Alaska” when he is, in fact, a California business man partnered with Haida people in British Columbia.

      1. The Haida territory, technically, includes parts of Southern Alaska, but yes, this is just bad fact-checking.  

      2.  It was this sentence: “that a scientist in Alaska had unilaterally launched a geo-engineering
        experiment — dumping iron sulfate and iron oxide into the Pacific Ocean.”

        Kinda makes it sound like one looney in Alaska doing all this.

        The other problem I have with it is it totally ignores the band council, the bank that provided the money, the villagers who actually ran all the boats, the agencies that provided equipment for sampling etc…

        1. Indeed. There is a very hefty layer of First Nations environmental and rights-and-title politics that is very awkwardly side-stepped by an assertion that this was done by a “rogue scientist”.

  4. “This is Canada so it’s British law, not American law.”

    This statement suggests to me that the experimenter in question hasn’t actually looked at the legality of the project…

    1. They say they have looked at it, and I think the purpose of the statement is to defuse all the helpful or angry rants they’ll get about how it might or might not be illegal under US law.

      1.  I’d be interested in finding out exactly where the dump happened. Some articles are saying it happened in international waters. 300km is not quite 200 nautical miles.

        Depending on how and where the baseline is drawn, could still be within Canada’s EEZ. That gets you into the Fisheries act s. 34 and associated regs. Iron powder might not be classified as a deleterious substance.

      2. My comment was reflective of the fact that according to the quote, Canada is governed by British law, which you think he might know is incorrect, having “lived in Canada for a number of years.”

        Also, saying that you have a legal opinion that the experiment doesn’t break the law, but that the two laws examined were US and UK laws fails to acknowledge the existence or jurisdiction of Canadian law.

        1. He’s probably just confused about what to call the common law. At least one of the lawyer’s he’s hired is a British Columbian lawyer who does environmental law / has acted for environmental groups.

          Here the lawyer is doing a little maritime law:

          and some work for the Burns Bog Conservation Society:

          Russ George is likely hoping the opinion letters will count as due diligence, which is usually a defence for strict liability offences.

          1. Except that 49 of the 50 states are common-law jurisdictions, and I think federal law has a common-law basis as well…

          2. Like I said, he’s probably just confused about terminology. Someone probably told him that Canadian environmental laws tend towards a strict or absolute liability standard and strict liability offences have a due diligence defence- something we picked up from the british and aussies.  We adopted the strict liability standard in 1978 and relied on UK and Australian judgements in doing so

            The major pieces of legislation protecting the environment (fisheries act and navigable waters act) date back to the 19th century and are based on UK statues. For example, section 14 of the original fisheries act (page 8 of the pdf):


            This section still exists in the modern version (although the conservatives are changing it):

            Section 36 –

            I don’t know much about american environmental law, but I think strict liability runs afoul of the due process clause and gets used less. I could be wrong.

            In any event, even if he is a complete nutter, the people he hired will know the difference.

  5. How do they expect to profit from this?  Or is it just an experimental proof of concept for a larger project? 

    I’ve heard proposals to do something like this to sell the carbon credits from the resulting carbon sequestration, but I doubt they’ll get anybody to simply fund them after the fact.  Are they trolling for investors for the next phase?  Are they at least doing a lot of extensive measurements?

  6. I’m also concerned about impact on other fish species, and if any corals in the area will be affected.

    I keep a marine tank (I play god in a small box!) and I know that even small shifts in chemistry can have massive knock-on effects.  An algal bloom recently killed a few of my coral, purely from slightly too much fish-food added and inadequately cleaned up (Phosphate preservative resulted in algal bloom).

    Chelated Iron is often used in marine keeping, but the doses used are quite small and not ‘just dumped’.  It’s used to supplement the growth of macro algae (Nutrient exporting) in hobby tanks.  What I do find curious though, and this is the area which I don’t actually know, but is the behaviour of iron in the ocean different to a fishtank?  In a fishtank, iron is used to give macro algae (Think long streamers and the like) a boost, and with any luck cause it to out-compete the microalgae (The small plankton like algae).  But they are trying to encourage the plankton like algae according to the article.  However, it is possible that I just don’t understand the science  and I live in a little isolated box that has little reflection on reality and I accept that.  Just food for thought.

    At the end of the day, the ocean is a ‘relatively’ stable environment.  And by this, I mean that changes do occur but it’s not a sudden dump of chemicals here or there.  When sudden dumps of anything happens, bad things likely occur.

  7. The claim that this is illegal is the design of the people who want to burn the books.

    Off his rocker. Too bad Leo G. Carroll won’t be able to play him in the film version.

  8. I don’t like this guy’s cowboy approach.

    That said: If the salmon population does benefit, I believe this is still a good thing for reducing atmospheric CO2.

    Dead salmon don’t immediately evaporate into CO2. A large part of their carcasses get eaten. Other parts settle out into what for a lack of a better term I’ll call compost.

    All of these WILL release gaseous, greenhouse-effect-causing CO2 . . . eventually. But for as long as the stuff is bound up in some critter or plant, it is out of harm’s way.

    It’s not sequestering the CO2, it is indefinite long-term diversion.

  9. You are right to be skeptical.  However we are already “after the fact”, so we have no choice about that.  The changes to the atmosphere have already occurred, and we cannot go back in time to stop the problem at the source.  

    Recent studies have shown that even if we were to reduce all the generation of carbon at this time to zero, it would stop the increase in carbon in the atmosphere, but the atmosphere would not just revert back to its original state.  It would enter a very slow decline that would take hundreds of years to descend to levels of just a few years ago.

    So it isn’t possible anymore to just stop contributing to the problem, we must figure out how to reverse the effects that have already occurred.

    [Edit: this was supposed to be a reply to Ian G ]

  10. All through the Pacific Northwest, tribes have rights to salmon which have been killed off by dams, erosion, mine runoff, water diversions, overfishing, and a host of other bad-faith “geoengineering” projects over the past century.

    A tribe taking this drastic step to restore a fishery which belongs to them, even if it fails, seems far less reckless than years of habitat destruction and treaty violations.  

  11. I live on Haida Gwaii and it’s amazing that our little islands have been catapulted on to the world’s stage. You should see the letters to the editor this week in our local newspaper. whoo-boy! ;)

  12. We are already “geoengineering” on a massive scale, without any kind of oversight, with the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere.  I don’t see why an experiment like this should necessarily be held to a higher standard than, say an industrial endeavor, which routinely do more damage than this is likely to do.   

    I do take issue with him potentially misleading the local First Nations tribes about it, but if they actually made an informed decision to go ahead with it, I don’t see why the UN or anyone else should be able to tell them not to. This isn’t going to cause repercussions that will extend very far beyond that region.

  13. The term “rogue” seems unnecessarily extremist. We know it’s controversial, but that’s controversial not universally agreed it will be bad. Someone needs to run an experiment to tell. Evidently some experimental study protocol efforts are in play and seem reasonable. It’s evidently not illegal. It was talked about a lot first. So… Maybe unwise, maybe daring, certainly controversial, but rogue?

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