Nobody wants people to dump toxic waste into the oceans. But tragically, the very same natural micronutrients that are the most crucial for the oceans to be healthy and generate climate-restoring photosynthesis have been mislabeled by some as “toxic.”
This is a big mistake, as perhaps our best chance to properly manage the climate crisis is centered on the unique capacity of the oceans, when healthy, to generate the photosynthesis that can remove the ruinous 1 trillion tons of extra CO2 that we have put into the atmosphere.
After 12 years of investigative climate journalism, I have come to believe that Ocean Pasture Restoration, OPR, offers a uniquely realistic path to avoid climate ruin. OPR is a nature-based strategy to bring the oceans’ capacity for photosynthesis back to its historical norms in order to draw down enough CO2 from the atmosphere to give us a real chance to survive.
Nothing else comes close in terms of feasibility and practical ability to lower the damage of the CO2-caused greenhouse effect down to a liveable level. And, rather than requiring trillions of dollars from governments and donors, it can actually create profits in various enterprises including restored fisheries on a local level. It’s fast, cheap and safe — and we have no decent alternative solutions.
OPR restores the health of the oceans by replacing those natural trace nutrients, primarily iron, that have been lost in the last century due to a reduction in the amount of nutrient-rich dust blowing onto the oceans.
Unfortunately, OPR has been painted by some as the opposite of what it really is. This portrait can be summed up with one word that is repeated throughout all these misguided articles: toxic. Let’s pick out two for the purposes of illustration.
A 2010 article in the journal Nature stated that OPR will possibly cause a massive toxic plankton bloom of scary sounding creatures called pseudo-nitzschia, spreading “the neurotoxin domoic acid,” which would threaten “birds and mammals, and cause a condition called amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans.”
And, in a second example from May 2017, a Scientific American article discussing OPR furthered the same misconception about toxic algal blooms killing mammals and birds.
However, while such toxic events can happen in shoreline areas, OPR’s work is only conducted, and it only works, in the deep ocean.
OPR adds tiny amounts of mineral-rich dust to ocean pastures in the deep open ocean. Nature herself, by her dust storms and volcanoes, over time immemorial, has on many occasions added essentially this same composition of mineral-rich dust to these same deep ocean pastures, in amounts thousands to millions of times larger than what OPR envisions, and with some pretty impressive impacts on fisheries.
According to Tim Parsons, a marine biologist and former professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, “The two biggest salmon runs that have occurred are both associated with volcanoes.” (The biggest catch of salmon in all of the recorded history of the Alaskan region is attributed to an OPR event in 2012.)
Despite many such events that have been studied for a hundred years by ocean scientists, not one report has ever surfaced about deleterious effects in the deep open ocean, or about any deleterious effects on any shoreline areas caused by such events in the deep open ocean.
In other words, Mother Nature has done the testing, and the results are in: there is no indication of danger.
I asked Professor Victor Smetacek, a leading expert in the field from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “Do you agree with my argument that the lack of reported cases of toxic blooms in the deep open ocean many hundreds of miles from the shoreline, despite all the volcanoes and dust storms, is a legitimate proof of the safety of OPR?” He replied this way:
Yes. The opposition against supplying iron deliberately and judiciously to ocean surface waters in specific regions to stimulate productivity is based on disinformation on how ocean ecosystems function…. Phytoplankton species that produce large amounts of noxious chemicals or even potent toxins are restricted to coastal and shelf areas by their life cycles. Since such algae cannot thrive in the open, deep ocean, opposition to productivity enhancement by iron additions is unfounded.
I posed the same question to another eminent and highly respected expert in the field, Professor Peter Wadhams, Emeritus Professor of Ocean Physics, University of Cambridge. He replied, “Yes, I am happy to endorse this.”
The Scientific American article also invokes the London Protocol on the Law of the Sea (LP), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in a way that implies that further large-scale testing of OPR would break laws and rules.
My research leads me to conclude that everything OPR is involved in is beneficial and designed to comply with all current and applicable international treaties, national and state laws, national and state regulations for implementing such laws, and any applicable agency guidance.
Researching the letter of the law, I put the question to Romany M. Webb, Senior Fellow and Associate Research Scholar for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. She answered this way:
The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have adopted a resolution, which says that countries should avoid “ocean fertilization activities,” except those conducted as part of small-scale scientific research projects in coastal waters. Notably, however, the resolution is not legally binding. So, provided countries complied with other provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, they could go ahead with the (OPR) type of project.
Webb adds that the amendment to the London Protocol that relates to OPR has not “yet entered into force so, at the moment, has no legal effect.”
While the absence of legal effect is important, I would argue that both the London Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which are tasked to protect us from ocean dumping of pollutants and the preservation of biodiversity, have gotten off track by taking on OPR, since OPR does not involve toxic dumping or threaten harm to ocean life.
Edward A. (Ted) Parson, the Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, had this to say about the legality of a successful OPR action in 2012:
There’s a ruckus going on over an experiment in ocean fertilization conducted off the coast of British Columbia in July and disclosed this week. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, an enterprise of the Haida village of Old Massett, used a large fishing vessel to spread 100 tons of iron sulfate-rich dust on the ocean surface west of Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlotte Islands). The aim of the release was to increase plankton growth and there promote growth of fisheries and maybe also remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Such interventions exist in a near legal vacuum. Critics of the Old Massett Haida project are claiming it violates international law, but this is simply not true.
Mainly due to vigorous lobbying by a couple of small NGOs (the same ones now outraged at the Haida project), parties to the CBD have adopted two decisions discouraging ocean fertilization, and geoengineering generally. But these are purely advisory – and are moreover so clumsily drafted that even if they were legally binding (which they are not), their operational meaning would be utterly opaque…. Nations are under no legal obligation to refrain from ocean fertilization research, nor to submit proposals to any international process.
Despite articles that argue to the contrary, OPR is legal, safe and can make a uniquely large contribution to solving the biggest problem that we face: climate ruin.
As we admire the farmer who responsibly tends his land pastures, we are now at the dawn of the era where humans will also responsibly tend their ocean pastures. We properly love the Amazon, but after all, under the ocean surface are roughly 50 Amazon-forest-equivalent pasture aggregations, and that immense scale provides the capacity via photosynthesis to draw down enough CO2 to survive. The key is to restore the ocean pastures back to their historical health.
At the end of the day, we are all fortunate that OPR is proceeding. If you are under 20 years old, you can feel optimistic about your future largely because OPR will do its part to curtail the greenhouse effect. But since time is of the essence, let’s not let misconceptions slow down our best strategy to survive this crisis.
Excellent Alex! I cannot fathom how anybody who claims to be ethical and moral could oppose scattered and dispersed “gyer-contained” OPR in the deep ocean if only for the goal of replenishing the fisheries which we greedy industrialized humans have extracted in our lust for corporate profits and personal wealth (mega salaries, bonuses, deferred compensation and stock options) among business executives**. I have read that some 90% of the fisheries have been depleted. Who will pay to restore those global treasures. With humanity’s dominant reliance on sea creatures for nourishment, why has there been no focus on requiring those who scrape the floor of the ocean and trawl the surface to hundreds of feet depth with nets unimaginable in size, removing everything in their path to take responsibility or to fund industry representative organizations to act on their behalf to replenish what they harvest sustainably. We are headed for a food crisis just due to unsustainable selfish taking.
Note ** Back in the early 1980s, I was a witness to a scheme concocted by a vice president and director of a Fortune 500 containerized cargo ocean carrier, who used an exponential growth projection of annual catch as the basis for a justification to erect a gantry crane at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and divert weekly vessel calls to load snow crab and king crab. Their compensation and bonuses would have been significant had the venture panned out as they projected. Long story short, the company invested millions to enhance the Dutch Harbor wharf and erect a crane, the port rotation was adjusted, and the business began. In reality, the exponential growth of the catch proved false, and the corporate return on investment fell to the floor. Those two executive, however, received no demotion, nor punishment, but continued to reap mega pay checks and ownership of corporate equity … ultimately becoming millionaires when the company was sold and the golden parachutes were granted to the upper echelon. Capitalism at its best, encouraging risk takers to innovate and rape the planet for personal gain.
Thanks for the informative article. It’s a shame you need to get bogged down with discussing international law (or not law) instead of just concentrating on an inexpensive, safe and potentially world saving technology. Let’s get OPR rolling!
Thanks for an interesting read. My first exposure to the concept of OPR (then called ocean fertilization–clearly there’s been some PR work done over the intervening years!), was in 2002 when Planktos dumped pigment from the Hoover Paint Company into the ocean with insufficient science support to get defensible data. Planktos then planned a massive fertilization effort near the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which seemed a poor choice for testing what was then a relatively new approach. These actions created an impression of ocean fertilization advocates as people who paid little attention to doing good science or to careful consideration of potential negative unintended consequences. Actual research on ocean fertilization occurring at the same time, focused on getting good information on actual sequestration and effects on biological communities, received little attention or opposition, alas. While OPR is a fine idea, it isn’t benign and should be carried out only with reasonable safeguards.
Great article Alex but I found one thing confusing:
” OPR is a nature-based strategy to bring the oceans’ capacity for photosynthesis back to its historical norms in order to draw down enough CO2 from the atmosphere to give us a real chance to survive.”
Why is the natural transport of mineral-rich dust now diminished? I would have guessed that with global deforestation and broad-acre cropping, there would be more dust blown naturally into the ocean now than at any time since the last ice age. Can someone please explain?
Hi Murray, thanks for your cogent question! Since industrialization, as humans have caused extra CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere, the world’s dry dusty land masses have indeed become significantly grassier, because grass thrives on that extra CO2. More grass has meant less dust ferried in the wind. The factors you mentioned do exist of course, but they are overwhelmed by the factor I am citing here. The result is a more than 50-year severe drought of dustfall for our ocean pastures. Consequently, we have been losing the ocean pasture equivalent of one entire Amazon forest every five years! This link can give you more info:
“The greening over the past 33 years reported in this study is equivalent to adding a green continent about two-times the size of mainland USA (18 million km2), and has the ability to fundamentally change the cycling of water and carbon in the climate system,” says lead author Dr. Zaichun Zhu, a researcher from Peking University, China.
Murray, are you the Murray Scott from Nova Scotia?
I followed iron fertilisation attempts for long and it made totally sense to me. As an engineer I am interested in things to be done. So I expected, ocean science community will test and test again, how it is done savely and advantagous. But the opposite happend. The science community, in particular the today head of Alfred Wegener Institute, who I asked personally about more fertilisation experiments, did not take the risk to do follow up experiments. The ocean science community and the NGOs did mankind a big misfavour and now we have the situation, that we have to do the science and the ramp up all in once.
Or is the solution to cut the living standards of the world population down substantially? This does not work at all. This are dreams of people who do not accept how we people react, if this is the proposal. This turns the societies into chaos, that can not be governed anymore. It is unbelievable, what this NGOs did, and is very sad, how the leader and some member of the ocean science community reacted to that. Yes, they warned us all, how bad the climate change will be, again and again for so many years. Did it help for anything? Where is the solutions science transferable to industry?
As tax payer I request, that the german or better the EU ocean scientists are organized in groups, working on specific topics. A head commitee gives every group a budget and a target for possible CO2 reduction methods, to develop the science that can be transfered to industry asap. If we have the oceans on track to help against climate change in the best possible way, I would agree that my money is spend to other projects.
Thanks for this very good article. It was really time for that.
Further to my comment above, I received a query about my final statement that “the Paris Accord agreed that emissions in 2030 should be higher than in 2015.” My term “should” looks absurd on face value. How could the climate agreement possibly agree to such a thing when its whole purpose was to cut emissions? Sadly that is the reality. Data cited by Climate Action Tracker in 2019 on Paris Pledges and Targets showed governments agreed that world emissions of 51 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015 will rise to 53-56 gigatonnes by 2030 (an increase of 5-10%) if all pledges are fully met.
What governments pledged at Paris is what they collectively thought and agreed should occur. The fact that many people would like more ambition is a separate issue. And now, the reality could well turn out worse, despite recent focus on achieving net zero. Current policies will lead to 59 gigatonnes of CO2e emissions in 2030, a 16% increase since 2015, according to https://www.unep.org/emissions-gap-report-2020 I personally think it could well be even worse given the fraudulent nature of climate accounting, especially of methane, and the powerful drivers of ongoing emissions.
The politics of climate change are deeply toxic and deceptive. So it is immensely valuable to see Alex Carlin shedding light in this article on the complete failure to recognise the central importance of ocean pastures as a key part of climate restoration.
So I see, not only for salmon but sadly also for krill eating blue wales, irrigating our deserts to green our crops, dramatically reduces the vital iron rich windblown desert dust from reaching the iron starved phytoplankton that krill feed on.
Our ignorance and mismanagement of carbon is stuffing up life on all scales!
Trouble is, this is too simple a fix for Big Money to make big dollars on, so it pays for them to dump on it.
We should open our eyes, question reports whether good or bad , but mostly, do the experiments.
Work with nature, not against it.
We have degraded a natural ecosystem–ocean pastures. We have a responsibility to restore them.
A total Slam Dunk, obliterating the naysayers and the ill-informed, Dark Greens, with a brilliantly researched article, directly and comprehensively addressing ALL the legal and environmental objections routinely trotted out, to obstruct Russ George’s elegant and cheap world saving technology. There really is absolutely no cogent rational objection left, to malign or delay the adoption of this superbly crafted solution to two of the world’s greatest challenges, viz, global warming and over fishing.
Surely it is time, to do what is so completely right for ALL humanity?
Hello Alex, thank you for sharing this superb analysis. You well explain why the opposition to ocean pasture restoration is anti-science, despite its claims to be on the side of science. In fact, such ideological opposition to OPR is grossly unethical and mythological, using fanatical neo-religious thought processes. The mentality of the extreme NGOs such as the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the ETC Group who have managed to get the UN system to endorse their wrong views is seriously crazy. They insist no feasible methods to cool the planet can be allowed because direct cooling efforts would undermine the impossible ramp up of decarbonisation that they advocate. Cutting emissions is certainly a good thing for the environment and the economy. But it is too small and slow to do anything about extreme weather in this decade, or to reduce the appalling damage that global warming is inflicting upon biodiversity. By contrast, measures to increase planetary brightness and convert CO2 into plant matter can be scaled up to protect the planet while emissions gradually decline. OPR is likely to be among the most efficient and safe climate policy measures. But the mad fanatics insist on holding our planet hostage to their futile belief that people will somehow give up fossil fuels well before personal interests indicate they should. It is precisely this cold realism about climate policy that the opponents of OPR hate. They want us all to be dragooned into their fantasy world of super rapid decarbonisation, even though the Paris Accord agreed that emissions in 2030 should be higher than in 2015.
Robert, your reply is very well articulated and pertinent, thank you so much. But please explain the final point about “ the Paris Accord agreed that emissions in 2030 should be higher than in 2015.” I don’t understand what you mean by “should be higher”.
Iy’s a real pleasure to read such sensible and balanced commentary on OPR., thank you very much.
Alex–Thank you for this. Well said. I’ll add to it: We want to restore a climate that humans have survived long-term. That requires removing a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, eventually more than that. Putting almost 2 trillion tons of CO2 up there is what got us in this climate mess.
Nature has removed a trillion tons of CO2 over and over, ten times in the last million years leading to the repeating ice ages. And it’s generally accepted that nature did iron fertilization to achieve it. No other serious pathway is discussed for where nature puts the CO2.
Duplicating nature’s pathway is definitely a wise approach. OPR is the only known fast and efficient implementation of nature’s pathway on the table. It’s by far the best pathway to safely restoring a safe and healthy climate.
Really this is, taken as a whole,