by Martin Lukacs
15 October 2012
World's Biggest Geoengineering
'Violates' United Nations Rules.
Controversial U.S. businessman's iron fertilization
off west coast of Canada contravenes
two UN conventions.
Geoengineering with bloom - high concentrations of
chlorophyll in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska
Yellow and brown colors show relatively high
concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012,
iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as
part of a controversial geoengineering scheme.
Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and
Information Services Center/NASA
A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of
iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering
scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian
investigation can reveal.
Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a
"blatant violation" of two international moratoria and the news is
likely to spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit
taking place in India this week.
Satellite images appear to confirm the claim by Californian
Russ George that the iron has
spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square
kilometers. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon
dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed - a geoengineering technique
known as ocean fertilization that he hopes will net lucrative carbon
George is the former chief executive of
Planktos Inc, whose previous failed
efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos
and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the
Spanish and Ecuadorean governments.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) warned him that flying a U.S. flag for his Galapagos project would
violate U.S. laws, and his activities are credited in part to the
passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting
ocean fertilization experiments
Scientists are debating whether iron fertilization can lock carbon
into the deep ocean over the long term, and have raised concerns
that it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides
and lifeless waters, and worsen ocean acidification and global
"It is difficult if not impossible
to detect and describe important effects that we know might
occur months or years later," said John Cullen , an
oceanographer at Dalhousie University.
"Some possible effects, such as
deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs,
should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples
of ecological manipulations that backfired."
George says his team of unidentified
scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever
geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from U.S. agencies
like NASA and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
He told the Guardian that it is the,
"most substantial ocean restoration
project in history," and has collected a "greater density and
depth of scientific data than ever before".
"We've gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have
been raised [about ocean fertilization]," George said. "And the
news is good news, all around, for the planet."
The dump took place from a fishing boat
in an eddy 200 nautical miles west of the
islands of Haida Gwaii, one of the
world's most celebrated, diverse ecosystems, where George convinced
the local council of an indigenous village to establish the
Haida Salmon Restoration Corp.
to channel more than $1m of its own funds into the project.
The president of the Haida nation, Guujaaw, said the village was
told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is
crucial to their livelihood and culture.
"The village people voted to support
what they were told was a 'salmon enhancement project' and would
not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative
effects or that it was in breach of an international
convention," Guujaaw said.
International legal experts say George's
project has contravened the UN's convention on biological
diversity (CBD) and London convention on the dumping of wastes
at sea, which both prohibit for-profit ocean fertilization
"It appears to be a blatant
violation of two international resolutions," said Kristina M
Gjerde, a senior high seas adviser for the International Union
for Conservation of Nature.
"Even the placement of iron
particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or
fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed
and found to be legitimate scientific research without
commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the
guise of legitimate scientific research."
George told the Guardian that the two
moratoria are a "mythology" and do not apply to his project.
The parties to the UN CBD are currently meeting in Hyderabad, India,
where the governments of,
...are calling for
the current moratorium to be upgraded to a comprehensive test ban of geoengineering that includes enforcement mechanisms.
"If rogue geoengineer Russ George
really has misled this indigenous community, and dumped iron
into their waters, we hope to see swift legal response to his
behavior and strong action taken to the heights of the Canadian
and U.S. governments," said Silvia Ribeiro of the international
ETC Group, which first discovered the
existence of the scheme.
"It is now more urgent than ever
that governments unequivocally ban such open-air geoengineering
experiments. They are a dangerous distraction providing
governments and industry with an excuse to avoid reducing fossil
'Rogue Climate Hacker' Russ George Raises
Storm of Controversy
by Margaret Munro
October 19, 2012
the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. John Disney
during a news conference at
the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Friday,
Oct. 19, 2012.
Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward , CP
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 "rouge 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 sulfate aerosols into
the atmosphere to block incoming solar radiation in a bid to slow
"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 100
tonnes of iron in waters off the windswept islands of Haida Gwaii.
But Denman notes that the iron was scattered 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.
that's running the experiment, says several 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 covering as many as 10,000 square kilometers.
And he insists the experiment does not violate Canadian laws or
"We consulted three sets of
lawyers," says Disney.
George, the chief scientist on the
project, was not available for an interview.
"He's sitting under a mountain of
data," says Disney, who was fielding media queries.
He describes George is "an absolute
genius" who know how to get things done.
George is also considered a "rouge 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
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 preventing 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'
"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, whose corporation
runs out of the Old Massett Village Council on the north end of
"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.
Spreading iron in the sea would act like
fertilizer, boost plankton growth, and provide more food for salmon
that have been serious decline in the rivers of
Haida Gwaii, according to the plan.
The impoverished First Nations community of Old Massett, home to 750
people and a 70 per cent unemployment rate, held a vote and was so
keen it invested $2.5 million in the project.
The community hopes to recover some of its investment through
selling carbon credits for removing carbon from the atmosphere and
locking in into the sea.
"There are lots of options out
there," says Disney.
James Tansey, associate professor
at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business,
said 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 says
"cowboys" such as George do little to build credibility for
Tansey works with several B.C. First
Nations communities now selling carbon credits for preserving
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
said he doubts George's team will be able to provide the
Disney says the HSRC science team spent
almost two months at sea this summer.
Since spreading the iron over an expanse of water known as a Haida
eddy, he says they have been monitoring the resulting plankton bloom
with a suite of instruments, including metre-long collection
bottles, 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 George's
"did not disclose that it was going
to discharge material into the ocean."
George reports in a recent Human
Sciences Research Council newsletter that 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," it says.
"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, say they 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 totally misled," says Denman.
Some do believe the experiment does have some validity.
"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 he points to volcanic eruptions over the Gulf of Alaska in 1958
and 2008 that,
"both resulted in enormous sockeye
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
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,'"
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.
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
"The results are really important,"
he says, and need to be vetted by the scientific community and
"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 pubic visibility "to create a set of safeguards going