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Is iron sprinkling the best solution for our oceans?

Is sprinkling iron in the sea the best medicine for planetary health?

There is little doubt that our species has a huge impact on the planet.

Satellite images reveal a planet lit up by human lighting every night.

If we can transform the Earth at a global scale, might we be able to do some good through purposeful global tinkering?

Or does our hope lie in personal lifestyle changes, like driving more fuel efficient cars?

In 2007, Sir Richard Branson challenged the world to think big by offering a $25 million prize for the most innovative way to reduce greenhouse gases.

Planktos, a company headed by Russ George was hoping to win the prize. George’s solution was to fertilize the world’s oceans with iron. The idea was to feed iron-starved phytoplankton causing massive blooms to absorb atmospheric carbon and then sink harmlessly to the bottom of the sea.

When Branson’s prize was announced, Planktos invited Sir Richard aboard a vessel that would spread iron over 10,000 square kilometers of ocean off the Galapagos Islands so Branson could see firsthand how his own prize would help the planet.

Branson never got on that boat and neither did George. Amidst widespread criticism, the voyage was cancelled. Planktos ceased iron fertilization endeavours and George was fired. The proposed experiment helped spur the United Nations into imposing a moratorium on ocean fertilization.

This was not the end of the story. We pick up the story in the summer of 2012 off the British Columbia coast where a vessel was spreading 120 tonnes of iron off the islands of Haida Gwaii.

The captain of the mission was none other than Russ George.

The village of Old Massett that had put up $2.5 million to fund the effort quietly celebrated over the next few months. News of the operation did not hit the world stage until October when Ken Rea, Old Massett Chief Councillor, and John Disney, CEO of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation held a press conference at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Rea and Disney announced the apparent creation of a 35,000 square km plankton bloom that would help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and increase salmon populations.

The fertilization was done in international waters beyond Canadian jurisdiction and international measures such as the UN moratorium didn’t seem to mean much either.

But was it the right thing to do? Did it really work?

George skipped the press conference on the pretense that he was up to his ears analyzing the data to try to prove that sprinkling iron in the deep blue sea really did what it was supposed to do.

So is it a good idea to tinker at a global scale? Or should environmental prizes be reserved for communities that make lifestyle changes with global impacts like driving more fuel efficient vehicles?

David Clements  is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.

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