The Real Story of Russ George and Iron Fertilization
The current hometown of one of the world’s most infamous geoengineer was unassuming. White Rock British Columbia was just shy of the U.S. border, it’s quiet downtown windswept and picturesque with a view of Puget Sound. The waters, dappled in winter sunlight on the day of my arrival, were an appropriate connection to the oceans that obsess Russ George. I met Russ in White Rock’s finest Jamaican Restaurant, and proceeded to sweat profusely over a plate of extremely spicy wings. Russ George had the homely style of a college professor on summer break, fit with a trimmed white beard in a loose fitting sweatshirt. He reported that he walked a dozen miles daily, and was only harassed by Canadian government officials occasionally these days, as the tirade against him dragged on into its fourth year.
In the summer of 2012, Russ was aboard a storm tossed 130 foot long fishing boat in the North Pacific off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the beautiful austere island home of the indigenous Haida People. The ship was crewed by a small team of 12, and captained by a Russ, a scientifically minded environmentalist. There is something fundamental about a small team with purpose and grand vision. In the age of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley, they seem capable of making waves of infinite size, be they good or bad. The men and women on the fishing vessel were determined to mimic an ancient natural process, once described by Darwin as he sailed the world's seas aboard the Beagle. Darwin wrote about a storm blowing dust off the Sahara. He described how the dust coated the ship so heavily that it had to be shoveled off the deck. 200 years later, a naturalist and a small intrepid crew would also return nutrients to the ocean waves. In this instance, 100 tons of iron sulphate and other forms of iron minerals mixed to Russ’ specific formulation, and sifted into the hungry waters of the Pacific over 10,000 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) of ocean where iron already floated in miniscule quantities alongside all the other elements known to man. The simple and studied act would inspire outrage and gleefully dramatic headlines around the world: Can We Stop Modern-Day Mad Scientists? Search warrants would be executed, and threats of litigation would be leveled against the crew. Like many a small team of warriors before them, their motivations would be questioned, their methods deemed unsound.
Perhaps iron fertilization didn’t fully penetrate public consciousness until 2012, but it was the oceanographer John Martin who declared in July 1990 at the Bretton Woods Oceanographic Conference, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” This ‘iron hypothesis,’ voiced twenty four years earlier, drew on the idea that the ocean is this planet’s temperature control engine. Nutrients (notably iron) are its gasoline, and plankton and the organisms they feed are pistons, capturing carbon out of the atmosphere, and in death, driving them deep into the hypoxic ocean depths. Some, led by John Martin, have argued that hundreds of thousands of years ago an asteroid, or just especially dusty conditions, fertilized the oceans causing massive plankton blooms that captured massive amounts of carbon (CO2 being the primary greenhouse gas blanket) and trapping it at the bottom of the ocean. It was plankton that ate the warm blankets off the earth, resulting in falling temperatures that left entire continents covered in ice miles thick. Regardless, the hypothesis illustrates the academically undisputed power that plankton has to influence global temperature continuously, even in the absence of galactic intervention. No one disputes plankton were primarily responsible for filling our air with oxygen over the last two billion years. One can imagine planetary temperatures rising, land based plants dying off as desertification takes hold, and dust from these deserts feeding plankton that sequester carbon at the bottom of the ocean, thus breaking the warming cycle. It was John Martin and his oceanographic peers who theorized that today there are large swaths of the ocean which fall into high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll zones where iron alone is enough to create and sustain large plankton blooms.
Of course today we have broken our planetary thermostat. In 2010, a study published in the journal Nature found that plankton levels in the ocean have declined 40% since 1950. Since the majority of carbon consuming plant life exists invisibly on the 70% of this planet that is water, this means we’ve experienced massive aquatic deforestation that outpaces anything perpetrated on land. Meanwhile, NOAA and NASA jointly reported that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The top three hottest years being 2014, 2015, and 2016. As we set temperature records year after year, the situation looks ever bleaker, just as we realize that the oceanic thermostat is broken.
Russ George speaks knowledgeably in a surprisingly moderate tone (listen to our two podcasts episodes) about all of this. The calm scientifically verifiable arguments were impressive, considering the viciousness of the attacks against him in the press. The estimate by Russ and his climate change colleagues that their 100 tons of iron sequestered some tens of millions of tons of carbon with the plankton bloom that it created at the cost of only a few million dollars is less certain, but his real focus wasn’t the carbon. The name of the company he formed with the Haida People was The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and was focused on restoring fishing grounds for the Haida People. A National Broadcasting Company article cites experts who agree that, “When plant plankton plummet, as they do during El Nino climate cycles, seabirds and marine mammals starve and die in huge numbers.” Russ' concern for aquatic life betrays the fact that he isn’t quite the ‘American businessman’ (read capitalist oligarch) he has been painted as in the press. Despite this fact, I still told a Canadian border guard I was off to interview an American businessman, because it sounded particularly benign. Neither is Russ tenured with the institutional might of a university to fund his operations, although he has done nuclear physics work for the United States government, which looked after him as he and his US research ship were targeted by environmental extremists in 2006, long before his work in Haida Gwaii.
Russ George’s first open iron experiment in 2002 utilized one ton of iron, and oddly enough, singer Neil Young's yacht. Young was an acquaintance George met at the docks willing to give a starving environmentalist a hand. That work earned Russ a feature in Nature, the gold standard for scientific reporting. The Haida Gwaii experiment ten years later controversially drew on funds from the Haida People, who hoped to both revitalize depleted fish grounds, and recoup carbon credits that might have been worth hundreds of millions. Hearing about iron fertilization as a means of revitalizing fishing stocks, it was The Haida who approached Russ. They funded the work in plebiscite election with super-majority support, approving the expense while under the regulatory scrutiny of the Canadian government's Indian Affairs Ministry, which required quarterly reports from the Haida on the project for years prior to the first iron dust reaching their ocean. Another government of Canada ministry provided a formal financial guarantee insuring the value of the potential carbon credits that would be earned by the Haida project. But the carbon credits, which would have made the salmon restoration project financially sustainable, were forever gone following an article in the British Guardian, which Russ claims was filled with inaccuracies and downright falsehoods. This seems to have initiated a 180 degree shift in government attitude as a spotlight was shown on the operation for the first time in years, and a Canadian SWAT Team bursting into Russ' laboratory, destroying and confiscating the work of his team of scientists. In spite of this censure, the fish, so it seems, did show up.
The 2013 commercial Alaskan salmon catch more than quadrupled the state’s forecast of 52 million Pink salmon. 226 million fish were caught that year. This unprecedented boom, combined with satellite data, means that news organizations and even the 2016 Convention on Bio-Diversity Geo-Engineering Report, begrudgingly admit that the Haida Gwaii experiment succeeded in creating a large nourishing plankton bloom that fed an incredible number of fish. So what’s the controversy? Opponents say that iron fertilization is simply too risky. They cite the dangerous precedence of individual nations attempting geoengineering experiments on their own. They cite how much we don’t know. Russ would say that we have studied iron fertilization for three decades without ever seeing or isolating concrete risks, and some opponents and scientists would have us studying it for another fifty. Alarmists cite concerns about ocean acidification due to dissolved carbon dioxide, although they admit that global warming and the human race is already transforming and acidifying the oceans in radical ways. Many environmentalists I spoke to simply do not want to let carbon producers ‘off the hook.’ Russ George would say that this is not a zero sum game we are playing with our planet: If carbon producers lose, we do not necessarily win. He also points out that we humans have already emitted nearly a trillion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, and that ‘yesterday’s CO2’ is, if we do nothing, already a lethal overdose for most of ocean life as we know it. It seems likely that at the core of our resistance to iron fertilization is our aversion to introducing anything into our oceans. Dolphins with six pack rings around their beaks, and floating islands of garbage are just the kinds of iconic environmental issues on the other end of the spectrum from global warming, the ones easy to understand. We remove 75 million tons of fish annually, but god forbid we put anything back into the water to make up for the harvest. On land, we’ve come to understand the effect of soil exhaustion because we can see it, but we have no language to describe the exhaustion of the nutrients in our oceans. It’s simply not something we have any familiarity with. Also, humans simply like clear empty water, anything else scares us right down to our suspicious ancestral roots. We’re only just coming to terms with the dangers maintaining antiseptic oceans in our own bodies, let alone on our planet (see the rise of allergies and fecal transplants).
The problem with introducing the concept of ‘accountability’ into the climate change debate is that climate change will disproportionately affect the poorest billion people on this planet before it affects the rest of us. They will suffer for any the conceit of any moralizing we do. Eventually we will reach a crisis point when we won’t worry about who pays for a solution. The problem with climate change is that by the time that crisis point hits, it will be too late, Hitler will have crossed the Rhineland, appeasement will have failed. For this reason, global warming is the kind of problem we are bad at solving. We won’t feel its immediacy until after the bullet hits us. This is also the problem with arguing to stay the course using current technology. No one today can foresee the full effect of what will happen over the next hundred years, but there is little optimism in our call to double down using current technology. Many environmentalists I spoke to confirmed that we are changing course, “from mitigation to adaptation,” meaning we have given up on stopping the dominoes from falling. We can only hope the doomsayers will be like Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century philosopher who looked at 70% of the world working in agriculture and the rising population, and predicted a future of starvation. The solutions are usually there, and today phosphorous based fertilizers and mechanized agriculture mean that 1% of the population makes four times more food than we actually eat. Despite everyone’s pessimism, the carbon futures market hums away with 6.2 gigatonnes of emission allowances, and offsets in 2015 valued at 48.4 billion dollars. Russ George says that this carbon market views a cheap solution to global warming which might reduce the marketplace of billions to millions, as a threat to be crushed. What if we put some of that money in an X-Prize to identify a carbon sequestration solution 100 times cheaper, one that gives us a fighting chance?
Whether or not a powerful cabal of vested parties have spurred negative media coverage of Russ George, it is undeniable that iron fertilization is a politically radioactive concept. This is only surprising because no one really doubts that it works, and no one can provide evidence to attribute ecological damage to the 2012 experiment, or for that matter any iron fertilization experiment. The idea that our oceans are off limits and must not be sullied with rock dust, doesn’t hold water either. We have gutted our oceans and destroyed their flora and fauna, even as we crank up the thermostat and dissolve our gases and chemicals in their waters. We found the most tangible question mark regarding iron fertilization to simply be its price tag. Russ George pegs the cost of sequestration through iron fertilization as low as a penny a ton, and says that even if it costs ten or one hundred times that, it would still be the large half of the holy grail we are looking for. The Update on Climate Geoengineering in Relation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, who are on record in firm opposition to iron fertilization experiments, dismissed iron sequestration as costing $457 for one tonne of carbon, suggesting that it could be done for $20 per tonne with nitrogen. It is hard to identify from where these numbers come. Competing industry accepted land based techniques sequester carbon for $50 a tonne. If that price can be reduced by ten times or 100 times, let alone 45,700 times (Russ’ most optimistic estimate) without destroying our oceans, then we could prevent mass extinction, and inestimable economic and financial hardship. Berkeley estimated a 20% reduction in global GDP by 2100 due to unmitigated climate change, while Citibank threw out a 44 trillion dollar estimate of costs to be accrued by 2060, but no one really knows. The bottom line is pain, lots of pain.
As I sweated over Jamaican wings on a still cool afternoon in White Rock, Russ George smiled. “It just works. They destroyed or confiscated all of our scientific data and materials, but they couldn’t destroy the fish. The fish came back.” When asked if the world would ever see another iron fertilization experiment, the professorial grandfather in the baggy sweatshirt became mischievous. “It’s too cheap to be stopped. It’ll happen again, only bigger and better this time, and when it does, they won’t be able to deny that it works.” If there’s any lesson I’ve learned as a combat engineer officer, it’s how hard it is to stop anyone from doing anything that only costs a few million dollars. We routinely discover North Korean tunnels under the DMZ that evade our ground penetrating radar, and that you can drive a tank through. All Russ would need is a squad of men, a boat, one wealthy benefactor, and a little subterfuge. What seems undeniable as we reach new levels of crisis in climate change, is that if we as a species need anything, it’s the technology Russ George is describing: the ability to sequester carbon for one penny a ton, or ten pennies a ton, or one hundred pennies without destroying the environment. If we fail to find that solution, our outrage that someone would jeopardize the safety of our oceans is moot. They are being destroyed, they will be destroyed, there will be no preserving them in anything like their current state. As sweat dripped onto a spicy wing, I dreamed of that technology, and imagined that just maybe it was right under our noses all along.