The boat stopped to refuel in Bermuda and then cruised east across the Atlantic. By early December, the Weatherbird neared the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory 150 miles off the western coast of Morocco. The plan was to take on final supplies—including a 100-ton load of iron particles and, according to George, a team of local scientists friendly to the cause—and begin the first iron-seeding experiment in nearby seas.
But rather than welcome the self-declared "emergency eco-restoration" mission, Spanish authorities radioed Captain Willcox when the Weatherbird was still 18 miles offshore. The ship was forbidden from entering the country, they said. The "toxic waste" they intended to dump would not be spilled in Spanish waters.
"Give me half a tanker of iron, and I'll give you an ice age." Oceanographer John Martin's quip to a 1988 gathering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts made plain the potential of iron seeding. At the time the director of California's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Martin was the first scientist to propose that carbon might be sequestered by fertilizing the ocean with iron. Martin, who died in 1993, has been proved prescient in his vision that the world would soon want to rid the atmosphere of carbon. And he thought iron could play a major role.
Certain ocean regions, Martin noted, are rich in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that encourage the growth of phytoplankton, the tiny plant life that forms the base of the oceanic food chain. But those regions are also short on iron, a key micronutrient that phytoplankton need to thrive. Martin predicted that sprinkling iron dust in well-chosen areas, such as the nutrient-rich waters near the Galápagos Islands, would cause huge blooms of plant life that would pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Eventually, microscopic marine critters known as zooplankton would eat the carbon-rich phytoplankton. Their fecal pellets would in turn eventually sink, storing carbon in the deep ocean for hundreds of years or more.
Since Martin's now-famous sound bite (delivered, he later joked, in his best Dr. Strangelove accent), a dozen iron-fertilization experiments have been conducted worldwide. Although Russ George repeatedly cites these studies as satisfactory precursors to his own voyage, in fact only three of the 12 studies conclusively demonstrated that iron seeding sequesters carbon for any considerable period of time, and even those studies made no attempt to track the long-term effects of the iron addition. The longest experiments lasted no more than six weeks, a consequence of the $25,000 to $35,000 a day it costs to keep a research ship at sea. "Every time we add iron, we create more plankton, which take up CO2," says Ken Buesseler, a scientist at Woods Hole who has helped lead several iron-fertilization experiments. "But there's a big uncertainty about the long-term fate of that carbon. You've got to get it deep enough so that when those plants decompose, it doesn't just let the CO2 out back into the atmosphere." Research to track the carbon's eventual fate is "the next step," he says.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.