Ocean plankton restoration offers a powerful remedial approach to global warming that also rescues critical ecosystems, profitably finances itself, and can help allay further resistance to CO2 regulation based on economic qualms.

Back to the Future With Plankton Power

W. David Kubiak | Planktos

Back to the Future With Plankton Power
Ocean plankton restoration offers a powerful remedial approach to global warming that also rescues critical ecosystems, profitably finances itself, and can help allay further resistance to CO2 regulation based on economic qualms.

Back to the Future With Plankton Power

W. David Kubiak, Planktos

Our work at Planktos, a Silicon Valley ecorestoration firm, begins with the abysmally unknown fact that our planet's biggest crises can only be solved with emergency aid to and from the lowly phytoplankton, some of the smallest and most ancient creatures on earth.

Few land-locked people ever think about plankton except when coastal waters eutrophy or red tides come to town. Despite their eons of history sustaining all higher life, their public image is negligible if not negative to a fault. Indeed the only plankton figure apparent in our media is a pathological cyclopean thief in the Sponge Bob Squarepants cartoon. This is an appalling level of ignorance given plankton's indispensable role in our evolution and survival, and the fact that they hold the key to reclaiming a livable world.  We hope to awaken you to their incredible promise here, but we have to start with a few more remedial facts that may scare your pants off first.

Chapter One - The Dire Science Story  

CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere has increased by more than 35% since the early industrial age, from 280 ppm in the late nineteenth century to around 380 ppm today. This atmospheric buildup traps incoming sunlight and creates what is known as the greenhouse effect, which has increased global temperatures enough to drive measurable climate and ecosystem changes.  Terrestrial symptoms of CO2-driven climate change appear severe enough: vanishing glaciers, shrinking ice caps, lethal heat waves, droughts, and a deadly intensification of cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes.  But the Earth's atmosphere is also indivisibly bound to its great oceans and the same CO2 overdose that threatens the land is triggering a six-alarm calamity at sea.  Symptoms include:  

1) Surface Warming - Temperatures continue to rise at the ocean-atmosphere interface. The North Atlantic and North Pacific have recently experienced record increases in sea surface temperatures: 0.7 oC (1.3 oF) and 0.4 oC (0.7 oF) respectively. Warming water increasingly stratifies ocean layers and impedes the ascent and mixing of deeper, cooler nutrient-rich water with sunlit surface layers. This starves phytoplankton, the microscopic primal plants that live near the surface, and inhibits their growth. 

2) Rising Acidity - Oceans are becoming critically acidic as surface waters absorb more atmospheric CO2. Surface ocean pH has decreased by 0.1 unit in just the last 5 years, which translates into a ten-fold increase in acidity. Continued unmitigated release of fossil-fuel CO2 into the atmosphere could reduce the pH 0.5 units more.  The current acid increment alone is challenging the ability of key marine organisms such as corals, diatoms and delicate shellfish to maintain the integrity of their calcium carbonate shells. Since diatoms alone support such a huge fraction of the marine food web, the increasing threat to these species endangers marine fisheries worldwide. 

3) Nutrient Deficits - Decline in vital phytoplankton iron nutrient has slashed ocean productivity. The amount of iron deposited in world's oceans from continental dust clouds has decreased by more than 30% over the past three decades. Iron is a critical micronutrient required by plankton for photosynthesis and growth. Most blue ocean regions have been historically dependent on Aeolian iron from wind-borne dust storms. Due to recent changes in land use, modern agricultural practices, silica sand desertification, and the increased spread and longevity of soil-anchoring grasses due to higher CO2 levels, oceans now enjoy far fewer nourishing dust storms from iron-rich arid lands.  

4) Productivity Loss - Ocean productivity has fallen 6~9% in the past 25 years imperiling many species. The rapid fall off in iron-rich dust has led to plankton droughts and an alarming drop in marine productivity.  Plankton form the base of the marine food pyramid upon which all larger species depend. Their continued dieoff could have dire long-term implications since plankton famines also starve fisheries, sea birds and whales. 

5) Current Attenuation - Reduced circulation of Gulf Stream waters threatens the North Atlantic climate.   The volume of tropical heat-bearing Gulf Stream currents flowing into North Atlantic has perceptibly fallen over the past decade.  Melting glacial ice and increased fresh water runoff have raised the temperature and reduced the salinity of waters along the Arctic margin that historically acted as a cold dense wall, forcing the warmer arriving currents downward and back toward the south, completing the ocean circuit. More of these heat-bearing flows are now diffusing at the surface instead of sinking and returning south, weakening the circulation of the Gulf Stream as a whole. Some scientists fear this may soon plunge northern regions in Western Europe and the eastern US into Siberia-like cold. 

6) Oxygen Decline - Ocean regions are now shifting from net oxygen production to net oxygen consumption.  Detectable reductions in dissolved O2 have been observed in all major ocean basins. Since the biosphere has historically depended upon the oceans' plankton photosynthesis for over half of its oxygen supply, the fact that certain areas are now moving from production to consumption is literally breathtaking news and could have catastrophic implications for both marine and terrestrial life.

Chapter Two - The Encouraging Eco-economic Tale

The Fearful Eco-Apocalypse vs. Economic Catastrophe
Policy Dilemma can be Solved with Lessons from the Sea

The increasingly evident climatic threats posed by CO2 buildup in our atmosphere and consequent public pressure for regulatory relief now seem to present the world's policy makers with a Scylla and Charybdis choice between escalating eco-turmoil and economic jeopardy.

As we have suggested above, a win-win answer may be found in the more profound but less perceptible perils that now confront all life at sea. As noted, the greatest untold story of our emission-intensive age is carbon dioxide's deadly toll upon vital ocean ecosystems that generate the oxygen and nourishment upon which humanity also depends. Marine plant and animal populations have declined dramatically since the mid-1970s with grave repercussions for the planet as a whole.

This tragedy's silver lining is that it may finally prompt our policy makers to reconsider the ancient importance of phytoplankton and their vast potential to turn many of our worst crises around. Phytoplankton photosynthesis not only oxygenates every other breath we take and feeds all life at sea, it removes about half the world's CO2 from the atmosphere.  Recently NASA/NOAA scientists and other ocean researchers have reported that global plankton populations have plummeted by 10% or more since the early 1980s. This means that in one generation, our seas have lost the ability to metabolize and sequester 3~4 billion tons of CO2 each year, an amount equal to half of all industrial & automotive CO2 emitted annually worldwide. In other words, by simply reviving this lost capacity we could halve our current emissions problem and be well along the way to the 70% reductions many scientists say we really need.

Planktos research demonstrates that this restoration can be accomplished quite quickly and inexpensively by open ocean replenishment of vital micronutrients like iron. Full rehabilitation of our declining phytoplankton populations will not only sequester enough CO2 to mitigate climate change, it will greatly help rebalance ailing ecosystems, restore oxygen production, and buffer surface water acidity.

Producing Plankton 'Forests' can Renew Sea Life, Slow Global Warming, and Reward Participants as well.

Phytoplankton 'forests' help remove CO2 from the atmosphere just as land based forests do.  Open ocean phytoplankton growth and photosynthesis, however, are highly dependent on the dwindling wind-borne supply of iron micronutrients. Planktos technology replenishes that shortfall with sub-micron sized iron particles distributed within ~100 x 100 km size zones, creating fast growing mid-ocean forests of diatoms, coccolithophores, cyanobacteria and other plankton species. Their rapid photosynthesis takes up large amounts of atmospheric CO2 and converts it to organic carbon locked in their tissues. Most of these nourishing organic complexes are consumed and recycled in the surface waters, recharging the marine food chain, but a substantial fraction sinks into the deep ocean, sequestering their carbon content for centuries or more.

(Poet's note: When all essential nutrients are naturally present or remedially restored, plankton populations live out their lives in seasonal careers, exploding and subsiding in 3~6 month cycles commonly known as "blooms". You can look at a plankton bloom as a lush episodic Darwinian cafeteria or a long ecstatic crescendo of organic fusion and rebirth.  Firsthand witnesses subscribing to the latter view claim their subliminal intuition of the surrounding ardent reproduction and the ubiquitous fragrance of "new mown hay" make the center of an ocean bloom one of the most erotic spots on Earth.

You can even look at a bloom from below as an emerald cloudburst raining fertile manna down to benthic life in a gentle blizzard of "marine snow" -- a far more evocative and visually accurate term, by the way, than the "rapidly precipitating aggregates of organic detritus, carbonaceous skeletons and fecal pellets" that the scientists talk about. This steady fall of marine snow is the quiet secret of ocean carbon sequestration as it rapidly exports huge amounts of atmospheric CO2 down to the ocean depths. This is in fact how Mother Nature fed the seas and cleansed the skies for millions of years until very recently when she started running low on the wind-blown iron dust.)

We can Achieve Ocean Restoration and Significant Climate Mitigation without Economic Hardship or Impact on the Public Purse

By replenishing the sea's missing iron and carefully quantifying the tonnage of its plankton-sequestered carbon, Planktos can generate greenhouse gas emission offsets (aka "carbon credits") to trade in the global environmental marketplace and profitably finance its entire restoration effort. 

Carbon credits are the new currency of global warming mitigation and each one represents one tonne of avoided or sequestered CO2 emissions that will not enter the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. In other words, a carbon credit can be any kind of verified reduction in ambient greenhouse gas concentrations or emissions relative to a business-as-usual baseline.

For example, if you plant a new forest and contract to protect it for 60~80 years, you can claim and sell all the carbon that the forest's trees accumulate for that duration. Similarly if you convert a fossil fuel power plant to burn biomass instead, you can claim carbon credits for all the new emissions you have avoided by not burning coal or oil.  

The customers are usually individuals and businesses that want to offset their own emissions for environmental reasons, PR purposes or regulatory needs. The final buyers of your credits then formally "retire" them, meaning the credits have been used to offset some or all of the purchasers' own emissions and therefore can't be used or sold again.

Like some of the more exotic stock market derivatives, concepts like emission offsets and negative commodities have an admittedly Alice in Wonderland feel to the uninitiated, but $50 billion of these credits were traded internationally in 2006 and major banks now predict that volume will double in the next 2 or 3 years.

These markets have greatly incentivized the search for new solutions to the GHG threat and for the first time created a sound funding source for ecosystem restoration as well. Planktos' carbon credit production not only profitably underwrites our environmental operations, it offers governments and commercial buyers the most affordable GHG offsets imaginable today. Indeed the whole planet profits, because full plankton restoration to known 1980 levels of health achieves four times the emission reductions required by the Kyoto Protocol and thus a truly historic impact on global greenhouse gas levels. Equally important, it belies the crushing economic burdens anticipated by many in industry and should smooth the political path to even more meaningful GHG reforms.

Chapter Three - A Chance for New Beginnings

Thanks to Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, increasing media & scientific reporting, and yet another year of record-breaking heat, at least the "is it real?" debate over climate change is finally starting to subside; but the growing consensus over global warming is now breeding conflicts of a different kind as fights break out over "acceptable" solutions or even whether we as a society can afford to respond effectively at all.

Although these battles are often cartooned as clashes between ultra-green Luddites and greedy industry flacks, each side has legitimate concerns and the resulting discord is paralyzing constructive response. The public "global warming" debate is largely dominated by two common and restricted views.  The green conservation über alles vision regards CO2 emission cutbacks, aka "source reductions," as the only righteous course. It thus perceives techno-fixes and CO2 removal strategies as unholy evasions of the polluter penance that its advocates endorse. (Since oil, coal and gas producers really have profited most and longest from our increasing CO2 spew, we can appreciate the justice of this argument. In the midst of a global crisis, however, it sounds rather like religious fundamentalists insisting that the only acceptable answer to AIDS, teenage pregnancy, or the population explosion is celibacy and total abstinence. The perfect is often the enemy of the good, but here the time to reach perfection will also prove lethal to penguins, polar bears and countless other species as well.)

Conversely, most industry types focus on engineering solutions and bottom line concerns, so they champion tech-intensive approaches that are complex and expensive but promise consumers less lifestyle distress.  These contrary perspectives promise a fascinating debate except that little of consequence gets done in the meantime and we are fast nearing a spate of fateful tipping points. Scientists already see signs of massive outflows of the potent greenhouse gas methane from melting arctic permafrost and equally ominous, CO2-fueled ocean acidification increasing so fast that the most vital plankton species will soon start to dissolve. Unchecked these phenomena will trigger vicious circle feedback loops that send ocean collapse and global warming careening wildly beyond our control.

In truth, we face an "all hands on deck" emergency now unlike any in our history and we need every promising technology and solution we can muster if we really intend to prevail. We hope it is also now obvious what an outsize role our tiny plankton allies can play in this mother of all endgames. Besides rescuing a massive contingent of ocean life, their restoration could buy us time to reinvent our energy systems, throttle back our lifestyles, and even generate enough revenue to help fund these transformations, too.

In sum, plankton ecorestoration is one of those win-win to the power of ten stories that should give us important hope right now in the face of so much wretched climate news. Besides, plankton power has sustained us throughout history and they still constitute the lungs and lifeblood of our biosphere. Even if the rewards for plankton rescue were not so munificent, they certainly deserve our respect and every effort we can make.

To participate in Planktos projects, offset your own carbon footprint, or just learn more about the science and political economy of ecosystem restoration, please drop by our website at www.planktos.com

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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