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Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll off the coast of Haida Gwaii in August, 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. (Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA)
Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll off the coast of Haida Gwaii in August, 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. (Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA)

OCEAN FERTILIZATION

Ocean fertilization experiment alarms marine scientists Add to ...

A group that did an unsanctioned experiment off the coast of British Columbia, fertilizing a vast expanse of ocean with iron sulphate, is struggling to justify its project in the face of withering attacks from the scientific community.

In a press conference at the Vancouver Aquarium on Friday, backers of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation project said they are doing good research and have collected a treasure trove of data that may show how to combat global warming.

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“On a changing planet, we need to take bold steps,” said Ken Rea, chief of the Old Massett village council, which funded the experiment using $2.5-million of community funds.

He said the negative reaction to the project has stunned him, but feels his group is taking the heat only because it is the first in the world to do a massive ocean fertilization experiment.

“The first guy through the door gets his nose a little bloody sometimes. We believe in our project. We have a good story here. We believe in our position. And when the data comes in it will affirm that,” he said in an interview.

“This project was not entered into lightly,” said John Disney, president of the Haida Salmon Research Corporation HSRC, which the village formed to run the project.

The experiment dumped 100 tonnes of an iron sulphate mix into the sea 200 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii, where an ocean eddy spread it over 35,000 square kilometres.

The goal was to boost plankton growth in an area where salmon feed, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of ocean fertilization. The group, which hopes to recover its investment through the sale of carbon credits, says satellite imagery shows a huge bloom did occur.

Russ George, a California businessman who designed the project, believes massive clouds of plankton can suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to blunt global warming and provide rich nutrients to marine animals and reduce ocean acidification.

But scientists say the experiment poses huge risks.

“Scientists from the U.S. have contacted me. They are really alarmed by this. They are worried. And I personally think it’s scary,” said Maite Maldonado, an associate professor in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“The consequences of this kind of disturbance to the marine ecosystem can be atrocious . . . and we have to be very careful,” said Ms. Maldonado, who attended the press conference. “I think they should be stopped.”

Evgeny Pakhomov, an associate professor of biological and fisheries oceanography at UBC, said he shares those concerns.

“I don’t like what they’ve done,” he said, noting that while the experiment might show short-term gain in surface blooms, it could cause long-term oxygen depletion at greater depth.

In an e-mail, David Keith, an expert on climate science at Harvard University, questioned the credibility of the project.

“This is hype masquerading as science,” he said.

The Council of the Haida Nation, a separate political body from the Old Massett village council, distanced itself from the project, saying the “consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment.”

The press conference was called to shore up the group’s image, but the only outside backing came from controversial Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania.

Mr. Skalbania, who in 1997 was convicted of stealing $100,000 from a prospective real estate partner, stepped forward at the media event to say that, in the past, he’d invested $4-million in an ocean seeding project proposed by Mr. George.

“I endorse everything they are doing,” he said. Mr. George’s company, Planktos, foundered in 2008, after planned ocean fertilization projects were cancelled.

Mr. George was not at the press conference. A representative of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation said he was busy “analyzing data.”

In an interview earlier in the week, Mr. George defended the science, saying a rich data set has been collected off Haida Gwaii and is being studied.

“I was told by one of our scientific advisers, ‘There’s not less than 100 PhD theses in the data set you have.’ It’s that rich. And one of them is the composition of what’s the right prescription to save the ocean, to replenish her iron,” he said.

Asked what the experiment would prove, he said: “Well, it’s too soon to say. But at least we did the science, we did the experiment. We are sitting on a mountain of golden data like nobody has ever seen.”

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