Tiny plants with a global impact - results of climate change experiment published

Jan 28, 2009
Clouds of blue and green phytoplankton swirl and twine in the waters of the Bay of Biscay
Clouds of blue and green phytoplankton swirl and twine in the waters of the Bay of Biscay in this NASA Terra satellite image in 2004. Proposals to combat global warming by sowing the sea with iron to promote carbon-gobbling plankton may be badly overblown, according to a study published on Wednesday.

A possible solution to global warming may be further away than ever, according to a new report published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature this week.

Scientists measuring how much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is locked away in the deep ocean by plankton when it dies found that it was significantly less than previous estimates.

Plankton is a natural sponge for carbon dioxide. It occurs naturally in the ocean and its growth is stimulated by iron which it uses to photosynthesise and grow. When plankton dies it sinks to the bottom of the ocean locking away some of the carbon it has absorbed from the atmosphere.

Fertilising plankton by the artificial addition of iron has long been proposed as a potential way to geo-engineer the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon sequestering

Researchers analysed an area of the Southern ocean known to be naturally rich in iron and their report reveals that the amount of carbon sequestered to the deep ocean for a given input of natural iron falls far short of previous geo-engineering estimates. This has serious implications for proposals to influence climate change through iron fertilisation of the sea.

Yet some researchers believe that the theory should not be discounted and that more research is needed

Dr Gary Fones is a marine biogeochemist at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Earth and Environmental Science. He was part of the team which carried out the study around the Crozet islands in the Southern ocean.

He said: “We know that carbon is transported to the deep ocean and seabed via the plankton, but the question is how much and for how long?” The combined results of all the studies undertaken so far indicate that there could be other factors influencing the amount of carbon exported.

“No-one has found a solution yet to tackle the issue of global warming and further research is needed to determine exactly what’s going on, particularly with regards to iron fertilisation.”

The report is timely as it coincides with the recent halt of a controversial Indo-German expedition also in the Southern Ocean. Just days ago, a ship carrying scientists from India and Germany were prevented from dumping iron into the sea as part of an experiment to artificially fertilise the ocean and stimulate phytoplankton growth.

Reports suggest that the German government suspended the operation following claims by green campaigners that it breaches a UN moratorium on ocean fertilisation. But the scientists involved believe that legitimate scientific experiments were specifically approved by the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) and they assert that the research is crucial to understanding more.

Dr Fones agrees. He argues that the experiment is not so-called geo-engineering for profit but is part of an important piece of research. He said:

“Efforts to find a solution to global warming are under threat by those people who are most concerned about climate change. But legitimate experiments like this one are crucial to learning more about the effects of iron fertilisation and will help scientists evaluate the merits of such a scheme.”

He agrees that adding iron in large quantities could potentially damage the whole biological food chain but argues that the German-Indian experiment is literally a drop in the ocean. Experiments like this will have a minimal impact on the surrounding area but will massively further our understanding of the science.”

Provided by University of Portsmouth

Explore further: Current residential development research is a poor foundation for sustainable development

Related Stories

Scientist investigates changing sea levels

Mar 17, 2015

The sea level has been rising by an average of 3.1 millimetres a year since 1993. Long-term measurements recorded since the start of the 20th century indicate an acceleration in the averaged sea level change. Coastal flooding ...

Science nabs illegal ivory sellers

Mar 09, 2015

A Toronto-based company has been convicted of selling illegal ivory in the first case to use a technique for dating ivory developed by a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in collaboration ...

Evolving to cope with climate change

Mar 06, 2015

Over the next two centuries, climate change is likely to impact everything from industrial agriculture to the shape of our coastlines. The changing climate will certainly cause huge changes around the world, ...

Coral reefs' physical conditions set biological rules of nature

Mar 05, 2015

Much ecological literature focuses on the effects that human actions have on species, habitats or ecosystems. Unfortunately, human effects on the natural world are often negative. Whether it's deforestation, carbon emissions, plastic pollution or industrialized fishing to na ...

Research cruise delves into Perth Canyon's depths

Mar 02, 2015

A world-first expedition backed by Google billionaire Eric Schmidt is bidding to unlock the secrets of the Perth Canyon, the vast undersea gorge carved by the prehistoric Swan River.

Recommended for you

Study provides detailed projections of coral bleaching

3 hours ago

While research shows that nearly all coral reef locations in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico will experience bleaching by mid-century, a new study showing in detail when and where bleaching will occur shows ...

Germany restricts fracking but doesn't ban it

9 hours ago

The German cabinet drew up rules Wednesday on the hitherto unregulated technology of "fracking" in Germany, narrowly restricting its use, but stopping short of an outright ban.

Life in the poisonous breath of sleeping volcanos

10 hours ago

Researchers of the University Jena analyze the microbial community in volcanically active soils. In a mofette close to the Czech river Plesná in north-western Bohemia, the team around Prof. Dr. Kirsten Küsel ...

Eggs and chicken instead of beef reap major climate gains

11 hours ago

Beef on our plates is one of the biggest climate villains, but that does not mean we have to adopt a vegan diet to reach climate goals. Research results from Chalmers University of Technology show that adopting ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

GrayMouser
3 / 5 (4) Jan 28, 2009
Isn't it wonderful how, when somebody wants to do an experiment to confirm or deny a theory, all of the modelers say that the experiment doesn't need to be done because their model shows it won't work (or not as well as predicted)?
MikeB
3 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2009
How much cooler do we need to make the earth. My wife and I can't even agree on what temperature to set the thermostat at. Maybe we should have a vote, state by state, so that we can agree on what temperature we would like the climate scientists to set the thermostat at.
GrayMouser
1 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2009
How much cooler do we need to make the earth. My wife and I can't even agree on what temperature to set the thermostat at. Maybe we should have a vote, state by state, so that we can agree on what temperature we would like the climate scientists to set the thermostat at.


How about county by county?
lengould100
not rated yet Mar 03, 2009
suspended the operation following claims by green campaigners


Yappy doomers are just worried that the experiment might actually work, thus enabling some continuation of modern civilization.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.