Jan 28, 2009
Controversy strikes in Antarctica
Earlier this month researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Germany, and the Indian National Institute of Oceanography set out from South Africa to conduct an iron fertilization experiment in the Antarctic's Southern Ocean. But the German government suspended the tests.
According to the AWI, independent scientific and legal reviews sought by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety have now concluded that the LOHAFEX experiment is neither against environmental standards nor the international law in force.
"There are thus no ecological and legal reasons to further suspend the iron fertilization experiment LOHAFEX," said the AWI in a press release.
Ocean fertilization – adding iron or other micro-nutrients – has been proposed as a means of boosting plankton growth and increasing carbon sequestration. But it's unclear how effective the technique would be in practice.
In late 2007 signatories to international maritime protection treaties the London Convention and London Protocol said that large-scale ocean fertilization operations are not justified. The parties were concerned that there was insufficient knowledge about the effectiveness and potential environmental impacts of the techniques, potentially leading to negative impacts on the marine environment and human health.
In October 2008 the signatories adopted a non-binding resolution that ocean fertilization activities, other than legitimate scientific research, should not be allowed. According to the International Maritime Organization, the resolution states that ocean fertilization activities not for legitimate scientific research, "should be considered as contrary to the aims of the Convention and Protocol and not currently qualify for any exemption from the definition of dumping". Scientific research proposals, meanwhile, should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Prior to this, in May 2008, the conference of parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity requested parties and urged other governments "to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities ... with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters."
But in response, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission ad hoc consultative group on ocean fertilization, a body of scientists, said that "the restriction of experiments to coastal waters appears to be a new, arbitrary, and counterproductive limitation. The most useful ocean fertilization experiments to date have been performed in open ocean environments, as this is where marine productivity is most commonly limited by micronutrients. There is no scientific basis for limiting such experiments to coastal environments."
The AWI says that the resolution finally adopted by the London Convention and Protocol in October 2008 stresses the necessity for a thorough validation of scientific experiments, but no longer mentions the necessity to limit this to coastal waters.
The LOHAFEX study is planned to take place between 200 and 500 nautical miles north or northwest of South Georgia Island, depending on the location of a suitable closed eddy. The AWI says that this region is "coastally influenced" as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, where the experiment will take place, is in contact with the land masses of the Antarctic Peninsula and the promontory of South America and this contact with coastal waters continuously conveys coastal plankton into the current.
"I wish to strongly emphasize that our experiment was developed on the basis of purely scientific issues in order to better understand the role of iron in the global climate system," said Karin Lochte, director of the AWI. "A large number of reports are circulating on the Internet and in the international press claiming that the Alfred Wegener Institute is conducting the experiment to test the geo-engineering option of ocean fertilisation as a means to sequester large quantities of carbon oxide from the atmosphere. This is definitely not the case."
Lochte says that the Institute is upset that such a controversial discussion was ignited on the basis of wrong, internationally propagated information. "We hope that through this experiment we will be able to contribute to a better understanding of ocean biogeochemistry and pelagic ecosystem functioning," she added.
Lochte says that she is absolutely convinced that "only independent scientific studies like LOHAFEX will help in arriving at a substantiated and fact-based political decision on whether or not iron fertilization in the ocean is a useful technique that could contribute to climate protection".
LOHAFEX is set to fertilize an area of 300 km2 with six tons of dissolved iron (in the form of 20 tons of ferrous sulphate). The team says it has found a closed eddy suitable for its experiment at 48 ° S and 15° W and will now spread dissolved ferrous sulphate along a spiral trajectory in the upper 15 metres of the water layer. The researchers will measure biological, chemical and physical parameters inside and outside the fertilised area and examine ecological changes throughout the 3800 m depth of the water column for 40 days.
• Commercial organization Planktos shelved its plans for a trial of ocean fertilization last year.
The German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) has noted the Federal Research Ministry’s decision with regret and says its reservations concerning LOHAFEX will remain until there is conclusive clarification of whether the project is compatible with the decisions of the 9th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). "The BMU is of the opinion that this is not the case since the experiments are not carried out in coastal waters and independent monitoring of the experiment is not guaranteed," said a spokesperson. "Furthermore, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) considers the 'risk assessment' to contain gaps that should have been clarified."
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.