NPR drops the ball on BC iron dump

In fact, I might even go so far as to say they screwed the pooch. On my drive home today, I heard a story on the radio about a geoengineering experiment off the coast of British Columbia this summer. This story broke last month in The Guardian, and was put in abundant context on Deep Sea News here and here.

As Martin Kaste of NPR reported it, this was an unauthorized experiment by a small Haida village in coastal BC. An organization called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. dumped about 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean, with the goal of fertilizing a plankton bloom that would help support dwindling salmon runs. As a potential by-product, there might be a chance of selling carbon credits if the plankton bloom managed to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Skeptical voices were quoted, of course. A chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska said that not all effects of iron fertilization are necessarily positive. A law professor at UCLA noted there was no system in place to pay for ocean-fertilization carbon credits, and was worried that environmental groups might take advantage of this scandal to push for overly-restrictive laws against geoengineering.

What’s wrong with this story? Let me count the ways:

  1. The glaring absence of Russ George. The NPR story makes it sound as if this was a plucky expedition organized by an enterprising small village. But the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation did not come out of thin air. As The Guardian‘s story makes clear, this is a project of Californian businessman Russ George. And George has a history:

    George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments.

    How NPR managed to miss these facts—or to omit them—is a bit beyond me.

  2. This quote from HSRC president John Disney:

    When we added iron into the ocean, there was an almost immediate observable impact on marine life, such as whales and other sea mammals, sea birds, pelagic fish. And this could all be observed immediately from the research vessel.

    I could be wrong, but I smell bullsh*t. In these waters, phytoplankton populations would increase noticeably within a day or two following fertilization. But there are few fish that can eat phytoplankton directly, and zero birds or mammals. These animals would have to wait for slower-growing populations of zooplankton, like copepods, to increase following the bloom. This would take at minimum a few weeks. For animals larger than a grain of rice, it would take months. Unless the supposed whales, fish, and birds were cueing on a transient chlorophyll patch—something I haven’t ever heard of—this quote describes something that didn’t happen.

    I can’t really blame a journalist for not knowing the generation times of temperate-water copepods and euphausiids of the top of his head, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t infuriating to hear something like this, unquestioned, on national radio.

  3. The absence of this quote from Guujaaw, the President of the Haida Nation.

    Again, from The Guardian:

    The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention.

    If this quote is accurate, Russ George perpetrated something close to fraud on the Haida Nation. If it isn’t, either Guujaaw or The Guardian is making shit up. Either way, the NPR story looks more than a little incomplete without it…

  4. The omission of the MAJOR scientific issues around ocean iron fertilization. First and foremost, we aren’t even sure if it works. A phytoplankton bloom undeniably takes up carbon dioxide into organic matter. But that carbon only makes it out of circulation if it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is buried in sediment. In between are legions of animals and bacteria that would like nothing more than to eat that organic carbon and respire it back out as CO2. If the carbon is respired at the surface, it could be back in the atmosphere in a matter of minutes. If the organic carbon makes it down deeper–say a couple hundred meters–it could be out of the atmosphere for months or years. If that carbon makes it into the deep ocean, 3 or 4 km down, it might stay out of the atmosphere for a few millennia—but still not permanently.

    That’s where the uncertainty is. Our understanding of the mesopelagic and bathypelagic ecosystems is murky at best. Until maybe 10 years ago, we didn’t really think much about the role of marine microbes in the carbon cycle. Turns out it is enormous, both on the production and consumption sides. While we’re pretty certain that increased plankton production over the long run (centuries to millenia) would take carbon permanently out of the atmosphere, it’s not at all clear if even a massive individual bloom will do much. Think of trying to flood a house through the front door’s keyhole. It won’t really matter if you’ve got a garden hose, a fire hose, or ten firehoses: the house will fill at pretty much the same rate.

  5. The total absence of questions about money. Believe me, there is a lot of money involved here. Any time you have a research cruise, there is a lot of money coming from somewhere. Oceangoing ships cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate. Twenty kg of FeS sells here for $1,000. At this price, the hundred metric tons dumped off BC would cost fifty grand.

    If the village of Old Masset, BC (pop. 940) has that kind of money lying around—to literally pour overboard into the ocean—I will eat my proverbial hat.

    If they don’t, it might be worth asking where the hell it came from, and what its donors expected to get in return, no?

I could say more, but this covers the main points. A discussion of “geoengineering” in general can wait for some other time, since I’ve got school and other work to do. For now, I’ll just point out that making geoengineering profitable through subsidies or carbon credits, while it may be necessary at some point, creates some pretty obvious perverse incentives. How long do you think it would take ExxonMobil to spin off ExxonMobilGeotech? I can see the Sunday Footbal TV ads already…

For over a hundred years, Exxon has helped the world meet its toughest energy challenges. Today, we are proud to announce the start of a new endeavour. ExxonMobilGeotech. Solving the world’s toughest environmental and geophysical problems, for the next hundred years. We are. ExxonMobilGeotech.

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Rocket Squid!

ResearchBlogging.orgRocket squid! A short paper in press at Deep Sea Research II discusses a remarkable sequence of 16 photos taken by amateur photographer Bob Hulse off the coast of Brazil. The pictures show a group of small squid (Sthenoteuthis pteropus) launching themselves out of the water and flying for short distances through the air. This behavior has been seen before in squids of several species, but captured only spottily on film.
Continue reading

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“Oceans #1,” say Mountain Goats

As readers of my About page will know, this blog takes it’s name from a song by The Mountain Goats on their “Tallahasse” album. Well, yesterday evening I went to see John Darnielle do a solo set at the Columbia City Theater, as part of my current trip back to Seattle. It was a great show. I’ll let this pic from afterwards speak for itself:

From Left to lower right: yours truly, John Darnielle

But even better was JD’s inscription on the copy of “Tallahassee” I hastily purchased:

Oceans #1.

“John Darnielle. Oceans #1.”

The man knows what’s up.

Perhaps even more awesome, though (and you know that’s saying a lot), was the opening set by Dustin Wong. I hadn’t heard of him before, but holy shite. He is a one-man guitar army. It’s not often that a musical act leaves me literally open-mouthed. Check him out.

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Kasatochi’s Ash and the Fraser River Sockeye

Mt. Kasatochi erupting, 23 August 2008. Chris Waythomas, Alaska Volcano Observatory/USGS.

ResearchBlogging.orgDid a perfectly-timed volcanic eruption temporarily raise a crashing salmon run from the dead? That is the question posed in a short opinion paper by Timothy Parsons and Frank Whitney, both of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in the current issue of Fisheries Oceanography. The salmon in question are the sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) of the Fraser River, which flows out of the mountains into the Salish Sea near Vancouver, BC. Fewer and fewer sockeye have been returning to the Fraser over the past two decades, reaching an all-time low of 1.7 million fish in 2009. The reasons for this decline aren’t totally clear, but probably involve a variety of stressors, from development and agriculture in the watershed to diseases and parasites from salmon aquaculture pens.

Then, in 2010, the fish came back, with a vengeance. Some 34 million of them. More than ever before in the 60 years we’ve been keeping count. And no one had a clue why. It was a topic of bewildered conversation that fall in the UW Fisheries department—and if the salmon nerds at the UW were bewildered, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who wasn’t. Continue reading

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You may have seen the news last week—derived from a new paper in PNAS—that juvenile bluefin tuna were found off the California coast, carrying detectable levels of radionuclides from the Fukushima Daichi disaster last year. In addition to the inherent interest in a story like this, the authors are at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and Stony Brook’s SoMAS, two places I have spent and will soon spend a lot of time, which caught my notice. Deep Sea News had a good breakdown of this ruckus on Friday; the takeaway is that the radiation was detectable, but not hazardous. This point didn’t seem to sink in at the press office at Stony Brook, though:


The actual press release from Stony Brook makes it clear that there is no health risk posed by these tuna, but it’s buried behind a picture of a line of tuna swimming into a radioactive bullseye over a glowing-green Japan. Contrast this with Stanford’s slightly more restrained press release, which emphasizes that the radioactivity is very low-level. Not sure that there’s a larger lesson to be drawn here, other than that it’s another example of the science news cycle.

My favorite piece so far on this story is from Carl Safina, the scientist / conservationist / writer and Stony Brook affiliate. He wrote a column in HuffPo on Saturday, where he pointed out that mercury and overfishing are far bigger problems for people and bluefin than radiation. Read that one here.

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Seasteading conference in San Francisco

So, this is happening. Seasteading—the movement to build floating libertarian cities in international waters to escape the oppressive hand of land-based governance—is holding a conference this weekend at the Le Meridien Hotel in downtown San Francisco. I’m not about to shell out for admission, but I will admit to a mild desire to hang out in the hotel bar tonight and eavesdrop on the conversations.

Some (apparently?) unforseen difficulties of seasteading were raised by Miriam over at Deep Sea News last year. And China Mieville wrote a scathing philosophical takedown of the concept a few years before that. So I don’t feel the need to get too deep into that right now. Continue reading

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Eastward Bound

As readers may remember from a few months back, I defended (successfully!) my master’s thesis at the University of Washington. More or less since then, I have been living down the coast in San Francisco, working remotely as an analyst for my old advisor. But there’s even bigger news, which I have been forgetting to reveal to the blogosphere for a while now: Last month, I accepted an offer of admission to pursue a PhD at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences of Stony Brook University, on beautiful Long Island, New York, USA.

I will be working in the lab of Dr. Joe Warren. While the details of my dissertation project remain TBD, I will be continuing in the same vein as my UW thesis—that is, using sonar to map and study zooplankton and fish, otherwise invisible underwater. There are some very cool projects “in the aether,” which I hope to write more about down the line.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be saying my tearful/joyful goodbyes to the Best Coast, including one more trip to the PNW in June, before driving back east in July. Let me know if you’ve got restaurant recommendations along I-80 or I-90. I’ve already been to that Flying J with the Denny’s in North Platte.

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Throw the little ones back?

ResearchBlogging.orgIf you’ve ever had to throw a fish back because it was below the legal size, you are familiar with a principle that guides many recreational, and commercial, fisheries. “Keepers” are defined as fish above a certain length, and the fishery is managed to minimize catch of fish below this size. The reasoning is that small fish should be allowed to grow up and reproduce before they are caught and killed. This kind of principle has been around for a long time, and seems pretty commonsensical.

But as with many things in the natural world, human “common sense” can be misleading. Continue reading

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Octopi May Day

From everyone’s favorite fin artist Ray Troll: this isn’t the first picture of “Octopi Wall Street” I’ve seen, but so far it’s my favorite.

This design is available on a t-shirt at Troll’s web store. Happy May Day…

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Oceans Deep

Cool new XKCD today showing the depths of the ocean to scale. Click the picture below to see the original. And for two more views, check out this old post.

As context for the last post, Beebe and Barton’s deepest dive in the bathysphere was to around 900 meters (3000 feet).

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