« Optical Illusions | Main | It's a New Phil, Week 56 »

Phil and Stephen to Split $25 Million Earth Challenge Prize

Richard Branson is offering a $25 million push prize to somebody who can come up with a way of removing one billion metric tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years. Phil and I know a way it can be done. So, we'll probably be moving The Speculist headquarters to more posh digs very shortly.

Well, maybe we should share some of the credit with the scientists who actually did the work. But, darn it, we did blog and podcast about a very real solution to global warming back in 2005:

[Dead links in the original post have been updated]

In our first radio show, Phil brought up an idea for combating the greenhouse gas CO2 that I hadn't heard before - seeding the oceans with iron. The August edition of Popular Science details several different methods for dealing with Global Warming, but the "iron-the-oceans" idea looks like the most promising. For the record, the other methods discussed are:

  • Store CO2 Underground (which is already being done in small amounts).

  • Filter CO2 From The Air.

  • Turn CO2 To Limestone.

  • Enhancing Cloud Cover.

  • Deflect Sunlight With A Space Mirror.

According to the article, the average American puts 25 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. One-half pound of iron strategically seeded in the right part of the ocean could encourage the growth of sufficient plankton to sequester the typical American's annual output.

At a lecture more than a decade ago, [oceanographer John Martin] declared: “Give me a half-tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” He was alluding to the fact that the Southern Ocean is packed with minerals and nutrients but strangely devoid of sea life. Martin had concluded that the ocean was anemic—containing very little iron, an essential nutrient for plankton growth. Adding iron, Martin believed, would cool the planet by triggering blooms of CO2-consuming plankton.

This idea has now been tested.

On January 5, 2002, Revelle, a research vessel operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, left New Zealand for the Southern Ocean—a belt of frigid, stormy seas that separates Antarctica from the rest of the world. There the scientists dumped almost 6,000 pounds of iron powder overboard and unleashed an armada of instruments to gauge the results.

The experiment proved that small amounts of iron can encourage the growth of huge plankton blooms.

Some scientists are concerned that cultivating plankton blooms in the South Seas could devour nutrients essential to life in other parts of the ocean. We'd have a nice cool planet with a dead ocean.

Probably every method that Popular Science discussed for reducing atmospheric CO2 has the potential for dangerous unintended consequences. Our planet is such a complicated system, that it may be impossible to know with 100% certainty all effects that any method for reducing CO2 could have.

To prevent unintented consequences on a massive scale, plankton cultivation should be incrementally implemented. If at any point the practice begins to cause a problem, the amount of plankton cultivated could be reduced. And, before beginning, I'm sure the scientific community would want to do extensive modeling with Japan's Earth Simulator.

Of all the solutions for global warming discussed in the article, only the "iron-the-ocean" solution harnesses life to do the work for us. All the other solutions would require the expenditure of massive amounts of energy - often by burning fossil fuels. But here, we would be using the energy of the sun (via photosynthesis) to cool the planet. This solution to global warming is simply too feasible to be ignored.

“Even if the process is only 1 percent efficient, you just sequestered half a ton of carbon for a dime.”

This is an elegant solution because it harnesses life to do the work for us. There might even be a second benefit. All that sequestered carbon might help lower acid levels in the ocean.

Anyway, would somebody let our friend Richard know when he writes the checks that "Bowermaster" is spelled just like it sounds. I spell "Stephen" with a "P-H."

UPDATE from Phil:

There's some interesting discussion going on around this entry over at Reddit. Check it out.

UPDATE from Stephen:

Commenter Dbabbitt writes:

"...how about securing property rights to the oceans? Then we can farmers out there growing the stuff (with the assurance of profits later) instead of the drive-by fishing we have going on right now."

Whether by ownership or some other mechanism, it is essential to find a way to allow farmers (which, necessarily, would be large corporations) to profit from their activities. The article that Bascule pointed to suggests one solution:

"algae-based biodiesel production is 100 time more efficient than traditional biodiesel, which is primarily soy-based in the United States."

Back in 2003 I blogged about how the formerly endangered alligator was saved here in Louisiana. When alligators were "protected" with hunting bans they had a negative value to swamp owners. Allowing controlled hunting and farming of alligators has increased their population in Louisiana 10x since 1970.

I think an intelligent global warming solution must harness the efforts of life AND the efforts of self-interested people.

This suggests a roll for governments. Governments would have to agree that sections of international waters would be set aside for farming. A country that has a permanent presence might need to have a naval outpost to protect their farmers.


Not so fast. You'll have to take your place in line behind me. You idiots couldn't engineer a proper solution if someone delivered all the resources, money, time, and manpower needed to implement it, right into your greedy little laps. You're all missing the most obvious solution, and I'm willing to bet my entry on it.

You idiots couldn't engineer a proper solution...

So it's going to be like that, is it? With the attitude and the trash-talk?

All right, Matt. It's on.

Do you actually believe that Stephen would have published our real solution, our Double Secret solution, the one that's going to win the $25 million, the one that our henchmen are currently deploying in an undisclosed location, in a blog post?

As if.

About the iron added to the ocean ... You forgot to mention that in the southern ocean, at about 60 degrees South, there is a sudden drop in the amount of plankton in the water. Scientists found out long ago it had to do with the absence of iron, so they called the line where this happens, the Iron Limit. What the newzealanders are doing is seeing if adding iron to the water further south than the iron limit, would have an effect. Obviously it does! This is a very good way of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and of encouraging fish life down south as the whole food pyramid starts with algae

You might want to read some more up-to-date research. In Timothy Flannery's book "The Weather Makers", on page 250 he mentions:
"In April 2004 Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and his colleagues reported on the results of the Southern Ocean Iron Experiment. Three ships tracked the fate of carbon in a 15-Kilometre-square patch of ocean within the Antarctic Circle that had been 'fertilised' with iron fillings.This same region had been fertilised on previous occassions and, during the experiment, iron fillings were released every four days for seventeen days. Following earlier fertilisations, the plankton had grown well, but there was no evidence that any carbon had moved from the surface layers into the deeper ocean where it might be stored. This is a critical stage in the process, for unless the dead plankton sinks, the carbon it absorbed will simply be re-released to the atmosphere. In the experiment documented by Buesseler, some carbon sank to between 50-100 metres; but was it enough to justify the expense?"

"As Buesseler and his colleagues put it, 'Using a patch size of 1000 square kilometres...over twenty-one days...resulted in an enhanced flux at 100 metres[depth] of 1800 tonnes of carbon, in response of 1.26 tonnes of iron. They estimate, however, that only 900 tonnes (roughly half) of that carbon would be sequestered on the sea floor. Given that humans are releasing 13,000,000,000 tonnes (13 gigatonnes) of carbon per year, the disposal of a paltry 900 tonnes through this tedious and expensive process is a poor result indeed. ' It is difficult to see how ocean fertilisation with such a low...export efficiency would...scale up to solve our...global carbon imbalance problem,' the researchers concluded. Even with a more positive result, an unwanted side effect may have been fatal to large-scale implementation: when fertilised, certain kinds of plankton grow at the expense of others, which can lead to an imbalance in the oceans and a loss of biodiversity."


Great article. This was especially interesting: "algae-based biodiesel production is 100 time more efficient than traditional biodiesel, which is primarily soy-based in the United States."


Absolutely. I think we should be careful about unintended consequences, but it seems that it would be beneficial to bolster the basis of the food chain.


Thanks for pointing to that book, I had not seen those results before.

But the fact that there was any success gives me hope that a better solution could be genetically engineered.

J. Craig Ventor thinks so.

Extending your idea, how about securing property rights to the oceans? Then we can farmers out there growing the stuff (with the assurance of profits later) instead of the drive-by fishing we have going on right now.


I responded to your comment up in the post.

Post a comment