23.10.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Q&A on ocean fertilization

© WHOI Getting carbon into the ocean is one matter. Getting it down to the depths is another. (Illustration by Jack Cook, WHOI)

A largescale geoengineering experiment carried out in July 2012 was communicated to the general public this week. A private company dumped one hundred tons of iron to deliberately fertilize the Pacific Ocean 300km off the west coast of Canada and trigger a plankton bloom. In scientific terms, this deliberate intervention is also known as ocean fertilization or climate engineering.


News of this experiment has prompted many questions and reactions from the scientific community, bringing attention to this hot topic during the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has issued a statement in response.

Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary, UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has agreed to answer a few questions to further explain the issue.

What is geoengineering, in layman’s terms?
Geoengineering, also known as Climate Engineering, refers to ‘the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming’. Geoengineering the climate is an option that is now gaining scientific, policy, and public attention but it involves considerable uncertainty and risk. The potential side effects of geoengineering are presently not well understood and will likely include unintended ecological consequences, which in turn can pose important political, social, and ethical challenges.

UNESCO published a policy brief on geoengineering last year, highlighting the urgent need to weigh the risks of any proposed activities, to engage with the global public and to clearly establish an international governance framework to ensure that any research is conducted responsibly and transparently.

Could you walk us through the process used here?
Adding iron or other nutrients to surface waters in the open ocean is a process known as Ocean Fertilization. In fact, this process is comparable to the use of fertilizers in agriculture, i.e. adding nutrients that are found to be lacking in the local environment to stimulate plant growth, in this case phytoplanckton that form the base of the marine food-chain. The stated intention was to trigger a plankton bloom in the hope of attracting salmon to this food source and enhance fisheries in the area.

The resulting photosynthetic activity could, in theory, increase the storage of carbon from the atmosphere into the deep ocean. However, the science is still highly uncertain, the supposed benefits have yet to be demonstrated, and ‘ownership’ issues for open ocean fishery enhancement have yet to be resolved.

Fertilization studies have been performed in the open ocean before. How is this experiment different?
A total of 13 small-scale iron fertilization studies and two commercial pilot studies had been conducted to date to improve scientific understanding of nutrient limitation, a factor closely connected to marine ecosystem structure, productivity and resource exploitation, and the global cycling of carbon and other key elements. There have been some unexpected responses, for instance markedly different phytoplankton communities and total biomass resulted from two iron addition experiments conducted a year apart at the same site in the north west Pacific Ocean.

In 2009, our publication ‘Ocean Fertilization: A Scientific Summary for Policy Makers’ documented and analyzed these experiments’ conclusions. The publication was commissoned in conjunction with Surface Ocean - Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS), the International Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Pollution (ICACGP), The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR).
One of the main conclusions is that ‘large-scale fertilization could have unintended (and difficult to predict) impacts, not only locally, e.g. risk of toxic algal blooms, but also far removed in space and time. Impact assessments need to include the possibility of such ‘far-field’ effects on biological productivity, sub-surface oxygen levels, biogas production and ocean acidification’.

It is clear that the consequences of ocean fertilization are not yet fully understood. Given the level of uncertainty and the political and ethical challenges mentioned above, the international community feels it is critical to uphold the precautionary principle. In 2008, the 193 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decided that no further ocean fertilization activities for whatever purpose should be carried out in non-coastal waters until there was stronger scientific justification, assessed through a global regulatory mechanism. Such a regulatory framework is now being developed by the London Convention (LC) and London Protocol (LP).

The scale of this experiment is unprecedented. IOC wishes to reiterate that given the present state of knowledge, ocean fertilization activities other than legitimate scientific research, should not be allowed unless they are conducted in agreement with the resolution adopted under the London Convention and Protocol. Large scale experiments should be conducted responsibly and transparently, and the potential benefits and risks equitably distributed.

IOC is concerned about activities which are carried out in the absence of transparency and in violation of international conventions.

What is the United Nations’ current position on ocean fertilization?
The outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) states ‘We stress our concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. In this regard, we recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and resolve to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution, consistent with the precautionary approach’ (The Future We Want, §167). This document, a joint endeavour of the entire UN System, was adopted by Member States in July 2012.

The United Nations General Assembly has encouraged States to support further study and to enhance understanding of ocean fertilization (Resolution 62/215; December 2007). Four UN entities have major interests in this topic: the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the London Convention and Protocol (LC/LP) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Together they cover the spectrum of marine science, marine conservation and pollution regulation.

In response to concerns that large-scale ocean fertilization might be attempted before its consequences were fully understood, CBD, Parties to the LC and LP and IOC have urged governments to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including an assessment of associated risks. These UN entities have also advocated for a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism to be put in place for these activities, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters.

The Parties to the CBD renewed this call during their 11th Conference last week, noting ‘the lack of science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for climate-related geoengineering, the need for a precautionary approach’ and that regulation may be most necessary for geoengineering activities with trans-boundary effects.

The ocean is a single, contiguous body of water that is crucial to human life: an unauthorized experiment carried out in one place can have consequences hundreds of kilometres away. We cannot afford to gamble with the ocean, because our well-being depends on a healthy ocean. We must take responsibility for this global commons, and build on shared knowledge and international cooperation to manage it sustainably.


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