Oceans absorb two billion metric tons of carbon a year, a third
of the total currently emitted by human activity. Sequestering more
carbon in the ocean would be one way to keep it out of the atmosphere.
One is direct injection of liquefied carbon dioxide from shore
stations or tankers. At depths of a kilometer or more, CO2 is denser
than seawater and might stay on the bottom as liquid or ice.
Another approach is to "prime the biological pump" by
fertilizing the growth of phytoplankton. These algae-like organisms
fix carbon: when they are eaten by sea animals, bacteria transform
some of their carbon to CO2, and some falls to the sea floor in
waste and dead organisms.
But "in every part of the ocean there are open mouths,"
Jim Bishop notes. "If the excess fixed carbon is eaten by fish
near the surface, the net effect is no gain." How much carbon
is really sequestered by ocean fertilization? Only more research
It was no coincidence that "the SOLO carbon explorers we
launched at Ocean Station PAPA caught a spurt in plankton growth
after a big storm in the Gobi Desert," Jim Bishop says.
John Martin, late director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories,
theorized that areas oddly barren of phytoplankton, although rich
in nutrients, lack a trace element essential to growth: they are
not seeded by windblown dust, the oceans' principal source of iron.
Martin believed these regions would bloom if iron were supplied.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas, but phytoplankton
soaks up millions of tons of it annually. Martin boasted, "Give
me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age."
Many observations support this controversial hypothesis. The most
ambitious yet is the SOFeX experiment, involving ships from the
Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the U.S. Coast Guard, led
by scientists from Moss Landing, Woods Hole, and the Monterey Bay
Aquarium Research Institute.