When the Weatherbird II cruised up the Potomac River and into the nation's capitol in March of last year, spirits were high. The freshly painted 115-foot research vessel was about to set sail for what would be the world's first for-profit effort to "fertilize" the ocean with iron, growing a vast forest of marine plant life that would pull the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The lap through Washington was an effort to drum up support for the voyage to the iron-deficient waters west of the Galápagos Islands.
The Weatherbird's captain was former Greenpeace officer Peter Willcox, a man who had devoted more than 20 years of his life to protesting illegal fishing and nuclear testing at the helm of Greenpeace's flagship vessel, the Rainbow Warrior. The crew was made up of earnest young environmentalists and scientists, some just a few years out of college. And the project was led by San Francisco businessman Russ George, a former fisheries and forestry worker who had himself once stood night watch on the Rainbow Warrior in his native Canada.
George had been studying the science behind oceanic iron seeding, as the fertilization practice is called, for a decade. Early last year, with the help of private investors, he had transitioned his small nonprofit research organization into Planktos Corp., a for-profit company with shares trading on the penny stock exchange known as the over-the-counter bulletin board. His business plan was simple: Sell the carbon that the plankton sequesters to individuals and businesses that want or need to lower their net carbon emissions. (In Europe, regulations compel businesses to lower their carbon output. The U.S. market is voluntary, at least for now.)
By early summer, George told a gathering at the Washington Press Club, the recently purchased Weatherbird would cross the Caribbean, pass through the Panama Canal, and head out into the Pacific, where the first of six planned iron-seeding trips would begin. The crew would scatter iron particles over a swath of ocean more than twice the size of Rhode Island. Then they would wait three weeks for the blooms of plant life to grow. Dispatches from the trip would be posted on the company's Web site, where Planktos was already selling carbon credits for $5 a ton. Their first expedition, George later said, was intended to be a critical first step toward halting global warming, a cheap and simple way to let the ocean do the hard work of cleaning up the planet, and to make some money along the way.
But as any ecologist knows, fiddling with complex systems can have unforeseen consequences. Rather than applauding Planktos's self-declared Voyage of Recovery, a chorus of environmentalists, tacitly backed by more than a few government officials and scientists, soon began an aggressive campaign against the company. Their concerns were both philosophical (should we intentionally change the Earth?) and practical (how do we know it will work out as promised?), and in their fight they established the initial front in the battles to come over geo-engineering, or large-scale modification of the planet.
And then there's the money. Planktos and its founders were driven by a seemingly genuine desire to heal the Earth as well as a profit motive. But in the future, a sense of virtue may not always be part of the eco-entrepreneurial package. In the Wild West economy of carbon markets, where the stakes are high and laws have yet to take hold, who gets to decide what is right? If the free market farms out the job of saving the planet to the lowest bidder, how do we ensure that the Earth doesn't get harmed in the process?single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.