Indo-German ocean experiment begins despite protests

By K.S. Jayaraman, IANS,

Bangalore : While a joint German-Indian “ocean fertilisation” experiment underway at the Southern Ocean is already drawing protests from environmentalists, a research report published Thursday in Nature has dealt another blow. It questions the very theory that dumping iron in the ocean can help combat climate change.

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Called LOHAFEX (loha is iron in Hindi), it is a joint experiment by Germany’s Alfred Wagener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in Goa, India.

The experiment involves “fertilising” an area of 300 sq km of the ocean with 20 tonnes of dissolved iron sulphate. It will test the theory that adding iron would stimulate rapid growth of phytoplankton and that these microscopic plants can suck up atmospheric carbon dioxide believed to be responsible for climate change.

The experiment was due to start early January but criticism that it will damage the marine ecosystem had put it on hold. But on Jan 26, LOHAFEX was given the green light despite continuing opposition from Germany’s own environment ministry which warned that “attempting to halt climate change by interfering with our marine ecosystems is a disastrous approach”.

The German ship RV Polarstern has since moved to the site and is said to be dumping iron sulphate in the ocean.

Opposition to the experiment has now further grown with the joining of Washington-based Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) – a global coalition of environmental non-governmental organisations in 40 countries worldwide.

In a statement issued Thursday, ASOC said it opposes ocean fertilisation projects “in the absence of an appropriate regulatory framework and public, comprehensive and peer reviewed assessments of the environmental impacts and implications” and warned that the project is irreversibile once underway.

Jim Barnes, executive director of ASOC, said the coalition “is very disappointed” that the German research ministry decided to grant approval for this project ignoring warnings by the German environment ministry. “By allowing this ‘experiment’ to go forward in the face of its obligations under international law, the research ministry is undermining the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),” Barnes said in the statement.

Barnes also alleged that RV Polarstern is dumping the iron sulphate on the high seas between Cape Town and Punta Arenas at an estimated 16 degrees West outside the target area originally envisaged at 50 degrees South, 37 degrees West.

Noting that this type of research activity is currently unregulated, ASOC said that CBD and the London Convention and London Protocol strongly encourage their contracting parties to consider the potentially serious environmental impact of these projects.

Furthermore, the CBD placed a moratorium on any fertilisation activities other than scientific research at small-scale and in coastal waters until such time as “a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities”, Barnes said.

“It is still not too late for the German and Indian governments to halt this project,” said Barnes. “This project makes a mockery of their governments’ treaty commitments, nor does the Southern Ocean need this additional stress.”

Satish Shetye, director of NIO, said scientists from his institute had agreed to join the study two months ago “after a lot of discussions” within the Indian scientific community and officials of the science ministry in New Delhi.

“Planning for the experiment has been underway since 2005,” Shetye told IANS. “It was our view that what we learn from the experiment would be very useful for regulating concentrations of greenhouse gases,” he said. Thirty scientists from NIO are among the 48-member team on the research vessel.

But the very theory that dumping iron in the ocean can help suck up atmospheric carbon dioxide has received a blow.

A study published in this week’s issue of Nature finds that the potential of iron-induced carbon sequestration is far lower than previously estimated.

During 2004 and 2005, scientists on board the British vessel RSS Discovery conducted an iron fertilisation experiment near the Crozet Islands, an archipelago some 2,000 km southeast of South Africa. The team reports in Nature that some 270 tonnes of iron triggered a two- to three-fold increase in biological productivity over an area the size of Ireland. But sediment probes revealed that the removal of carbon was nowhere near as massive as lab experiments had suggested.

“Ocean iron fertilisation is simply no longer to be taken as a viable option for mitigation of the carbon dioxide problem,” the Nature report said quoting Hein de Baar, an oceanographer at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel.