Published October 18, 2012
By Margaret Munro
VANCOUVER _ Russ George doesn’t think small.
He got the Vatican to buy into a venture to reduce its carbon footprint by growing a forest in Hungary.
He sailed off to the Galapagos Islands in 2007 with a grand plan to scatter iron over a large swath of the South Pacific.
And now George is leading the world’s largest ocean-fertilization experiment off the B.C. coast, which was widely denounced this week as shoddy science and a violation of international rules.
George is the kind of can-do entrepreneur – or “rogue climate hacker” as he was described this past week – that makes some worry about unauthorized experiments putting the planet at risk.
It’s the ocean this time, and the experiment will likely do no serious damage, says Ken Denman, an oceanographer at the University of Victoria. Next time, he says, it could be some multimillionaire or “rogue” country shooting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to block incoming solar radiation in a bid to slow global warming.
“That’s the big worry,” says Denman, a former Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist who has spent years working on international efforts to better protect the global atmosphere and oceans.
Environment Canada’s Enforcement Branch is investigating George’s B.C. experiment, which scattered 120 tonnes of iron in waters off the windswept islands of Haida Gwaii.
But Denman notes that the iron was dumped outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, where Canada has no jurisdiction.
And while critics call George’s experiment a “blatant violation” of international agreements, Denman says the regulations “have no teeth.” The London Convention permits “legitimate scientific research” and that is open to broad interpretation.
John Disney, CEO of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. running the experiment, told a media briefing Friday that as many as seven federal departments, including Environment Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, were aware of the experiment long before the iron was scattered into the sea in July spawning what is said to be a huge plankton bloom in a patch of ocean about 35,000 square kilometres in size.
Disney and the lawyers with him at the briefing insist the experiment does not violate Canadian laws or international conventions.
George, the chief scientist on the project, skipped the briefing. He was said to be too busy dealing with the mass of data streaming in from the ongoing experiment.
But Disney vociferously defended both George and the $2.5-million experiment being paid for by the impoverished First Nations community of Old Massett on the north end of Haida Gwaii.
“Russ George did not come to dupe us or sell us a bill of goods,” says Disney, who was echoed by chief councillor Ken Rea of Old Massett.
“Russ has one aim in life, he wants to make the planet a better place,” adds Disney, who describes his longtime colleague as “an absolute genius.”
George is also considered a “rogue climate hacker,” as Britain’s New Scientist put it this week, who has been running questionable projects for years.
George’s California company, Planktos Corp., backed by Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania, tried to scatter tonnes of iron dust into the water near the Galapagos Islands in 2007 in the first attempt to make money from ocean fertilization.
George sailed off in a 115-foot-long ship, the Weatherbird II, with a plan to fertilize almost a million hectares of the South Pacific to get algae to grow, creating a phytoplankton bloom. The algae, George told investors, would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which could then be used to generate lucrative carbon credits.
Critics denounced the plan as a misguided “geoengineering” scheme, and the government of Ecuador barred the Weatherbird II from its ports. George then changed course and headed for the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean but Spanish officials prevented him from coming into port.
George also made headlines when Planktos teamed up with the Vatican to make the Holy See what he called “the first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state” by planting a forest in Hungary.
George presented Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, with carbon offset certificates at a Vatican ceremony announcing the plan in July 2007. The Vatican project reportedly fell through when Planktos Corp. went bankrupt.
Disney, who had worked with George on Canadian forest projects, says he approached him about returning to British Columbia when Planktos’ fortunes sank.
“When things started going sideways I said, ‘You know Russ, maybe it’s time to form a relationship here,’” says Disney.
He describes George as an “activist scientist” who takes complex scientific ideas and theories and applies them in the real world.
“That’s what he’s an absolute genius at, that’s why we hired him,” says Disney. “We didn’t want to go too much with a straight academic as our lead because then it’s going to be too rigid, too controlled.”
George came up with a plan to “bring life back to the North Pacific,” says Disney: Spread iron in the sea that would act like fertilizer, boost plankton growth, and provide more food for salmon that have been serious decline in the rivers of Haida Gwaii.
Old Massett, home to 750 people and a 70 per cent unemployment rate, held a vote and agreed to invest $2.5 million in the project.
Councillor Rea continues to support the project, but opposition is widespread in the scientific community and among Haida chiefs.
“The Hereditary Chiefs Council and the Council of the Haida Nation are in no way involved in artificial fertilization through the dumping of iron compounds in the ocean around Haida Gwaii,” says a statement released Thursday by the Council of the Haida Nation. “The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment.”
Old Massett, which Rea says made its own decision to back the project, hopes to recover some of its $2.5-million investment through selling carbon credits for removing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it into the sea. But that too is in question.
James Tansey, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, says he doubts they’ll find a buyer anytime soon. At least, he says, not on the regulated carbon markets, such as the ones in British Columbia and Alberta that require third party “validation and verification” that carbon has been removed from the atmosphere.
“I can tell you none of the regulated buyers would touch it,” says Tansey, who adds “cowboys” such as George do little to build credibility for carbon trading.
Tansey works with several B.C. First Nations communities now selling carbon credits for preserving forests. He notes that ocean fertilization is far more complex and controversial.
“You’d have to prove that when you add iron to the ocean it has a real affect,” says Tansey, who adds that he doubts George’s team will be able to provide the evidence needed.
Disney and Rae used Friday’s briefing, held at the Vancouver Aquarium, to showcase the scientific equipment used for the ongoing experiment that they say was well planned and executed.
George and his team spent almost two months at sea this summer on their research ship, a refitted fishing boat, the Ocean Pearl.
Video taken on the cruise shows a slurry of iron pouring out of a large hose and leaving a rusty trail behind the ship as it travelled through an expanse of water known as a Haida eddy. The team has been monitoring the resulting plankton bloom with a suite of sophisticated instruments, including biomass sonars and bright yellow underwater “gliders” programmed to zip through the water collecting data. They are also using 20 Argos “drifterbots,” from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to track the plankton bloom as the winds and currents push it around. NOAA provided the equipment, but the New York Times reports that George “duped” the agency. An agency spokesperson told the Times that NOAA had been “misled” by the group, which “did not disclose that it was going to discharge material into the ocean.”
Disney and his colleagues say the “pioneering” project has had a dramatic impact. “The waters of the Haida eddy have turned from clear blue and sparse of life into a verdant emerald sea lush with the growth of a hundred million tonnes of plankton and the entire food chain it supports,” they say in a report describing the transformation.
“The growth of those tonnes of plankton derives from vast amounts of CO2 now diverted from becoming deadly ocean acid and instead made that same CO2 become ocean life itself.” Denman, who has been involved in small-scale iron fertilization projects in the North Pacific, does not buy it.
He says the plankton bloom could have occurred naturally because it is well known that the enormous eddies that form west of the Haida Gwaii are enriched by coastal waters carrying iron and nitrogen.
Denman, and many other scientists who have criticized the project since it became public knowledge this week, doubt George will be able to prove the added iron had an impact on the plankton, salmon or that carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere.
The people in Old Massett have been “misled,” says Denman.
Some scientists say the experiment does address an important question.
“While I agree that the procedure was scientifically hasty and controversial, the purpose of enhancing salmon returns by increasing plankton production has considerable justification,” says Timothy Parsons, a fisheries scientist and professor emeritus at the University of B.C.
The waters of the Gulf of Alaska are so nutrient poor they are a “virtual desert dominated by jelly fish,” says Parsons. His research has helped show that iron-rich volcanic dust stimulates growth of diatoms, a form of algae that he describes as “the clover of the sea.”
And like Disney and the people of Old Massett, Parsons points to volcanic eruptions over the Gulf of Alaska in 1958 and 2008 that “both resulted in enormous sockeye salmon returns.”
John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium, was one of several scientists approached about a year and half ago when George’s team was looking for scientific supporters.
He was initially taken aback by the ocean fertilization plan.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, this is playing with Mother Nature on a grand scale,’” Nightingale says.
After learning more about the project, he decided adding iron to the ocean to see if it could increase salmon production was a reasonable thing to try. “The scientific questions at its core are valid,” says Nightingale. He said at Friday’s briefing that the aquarium is not involved with the project and is not taking sides in the controversy.
Many argue such experiments should be done in a carefully controlled, multi-year, step-by-step manner. But Nightingale says “that was clearly never going to happen” given dwindling federal funds for ocean research.
Now that the experiment has been done, Nightingale says George and his team must be transparent with the data collected.
“The results are really important,” he says, and need to be vetted by the scientific community and distributed widely.
“Out of that will come some direction and no longer will it just be what the Haida decide to do,” says Nightingale. He expects the public visibility “to create a set of safeguards going forward.”