Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ocean Fertilization redux… plus the politics of science

My last posting about Climate Change remediation got a lot of attention, positive and negative,  so let me emphasize: I do not consider any form of "geoengineering" to be a substitute for responsibly investing in energy efficiency and finding ways to maintain a great civilization without ruining our planet. Even if a few such methods are found that work well, without crackpot flaws and/or gruesome side effects, that won't let us off the hook from our shared and individual responsibilities, which include seeking alternate, sustainable forms of energy to replace the irresponsible spewing of greenhouse pollutants into our atmosphere. Those who have been lured into participating in a War on Science must be introduced to its value. But the cynical men who are financing this cult are enemies of humankind.

PushPullOceanPumpsOnly now… some additional insights. A variant on ocean fertilization has been proposed by my friend William Calvin, one of the smartest guys I know. Bill agrees with me that the best approach for geoengineering and partial remediation of carbon driven climate change would be to emulate and enhance the method that Nature herself already uses, to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.  That means doing it via natural processes at-sea, forming carbon rich solids and letting these settle as sediments to the ocean bottom.  (While, as a side-benefit, stimulating new fisheries.)  See Calvin's Proposal: Emergency 20-year Drawdown of Excess CO2 via Push-Pull  Ocean Pumps.

Earlier we discussed the drawbacks of the bludgeon-like initial attempts at ocean fertilization, that have created crude plankton blooms by dumping iron powder into currents.  We also saw that care must be taken to make sure that (as when arid land is irrigated) the new zones of fecundity must be "well-drained" like the Grand Banks and Chile, and unlike the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where "fecundity" can translate into  a poisoned morass of algae and jellyfish.  My conclusion: if you want to emulate the main life-process that removes CO2 from the air, do it by lifting submerged nutrients to higher, sun-lit realms, exactly as Nature does it.  Several methods have been proposed and I showed a couple of them way back in in EARTH (1989).

Let me pause to add that there are non-living process that do the same thing, in parallel.  Even more effective at drawing down atmospheric CO2 is the weathering of continental rocks by the rain cycle, washing silicates to sea via river estuaries, reacting and combining with dissolved carbon and sealing them away in sediments without intervention by biology. (Indeed, this is the principal driver of the "Gala Balance" that makes a natural ocean world self-regulating.)  I have never seen any proposals to expand continental, river-carried weathering… though I imagine a lot of dust will go to sea if we continue to spread deserts… or if desertification results in nuclear war.

CarbonSoupBudgetBut let's get back to Bill Calvin's concept.  He starts with what I've been pushing… systems that emulate natural upwellings by bringing up nutrients from below, using either windmills or wave powered systems.  (Have a look: some are very clever: especially using 3000 abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.)

He then deals with a serious problem, that most of the CO2 sequestered by a plankton bloom does not either sink or feed fish, but simply returns to the air after the plankton dies.  Calvin solves this by having another windmill-powered tube situated down-current from the upwelling one.  This second one pumps the carbon rich surface water back down again.  I'll let him explain:

Calvin's push-pull pumps:  "An easy-to-visualize method to do push-pull pumps uses floating windmills. Long pipes hang 15 to 30 stories down into the slowly moving depths. One windmill operates traditionally, pulling deep water up to the surface.  The nutrients in this cold water create a sustained bloom of algae (and algae thrive in cooler water). The other windmill pump pushes the enriched surface water down to where it cannot resurface for millennia. Pumping down stores the carbon in the brand-new algae as well as canceling out whatever carbon dioxide was first pulled up from below the thermocline. That’s the first big payoff from going with push-pull pumps."

"Even more importantly, it sinks the 240x larger amounts of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the feces and cell debris. (Algaculture throws out the dissolved part of their organic crop.) DOC ordinarily becomes carbon dioxide within a week or two and then escapes into the air as winds stir the surface layer. Stashing it as well is the second big step up in efficiency achieved by push-pull pumps."

These things merit discussion.  Do have a closer look.  Because reducing CO2 at the source will no longer suffice.  We have to push for that!  But it will take more.

See my article: Defining Climate "Deniers" and "Skeptics." Without any doubt it is possible to be a skeptic who helps science by critiquing the flaws in any standard model. Such skepticism, propelled by curiosity and the natural competitiveness of science (indeed, science is the most ferociously competitive of all human endeavors) is natural and wholesome.  Alas, 95% of those calling themselves "climate skeptics" do not fit this description.  Their stance is driven by political loyalties and participation in an ever-deepening War on Science and everything that it stands for. And the worst example of all is...

== Politics and Science ==

The Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives -- continuing its almost blemish-free record of jibbering inanity, with members from the majority party almost universally unqualified and propelled by fanatical dogmas.  Take Mississippi Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chairs the Space Subcommittee. His revision of the Administration's NASA budget request would slash the requested Earth science budget by a third (from about $1.8 billion to $1.2 billion) next year.  This from the party that proclaims "we need more research!" in order to determine whether human activity is promoting climate change and global warming.

researchfunds(This year's Fox-declared dogma is to backpedal and admit (at last) that major global warming is obviously taking place, but continuing to declare human causes to be "unproved." And further proclaiming that lemming-herd-like scientists are all cowardly-timid yelpers after teensy grants. Even though half of all climate researchers are doing great, earning nearly all of their funds from perfectly safe research into weather prediction, having accomplished the spectacular feat of transforming the old, two hour weather report into a ten day miracle. Geniuses, chivvied by their opposites.)

Keeping true to form, the targeted slashing of science continues. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which supports the development and commercialization of new energy technologies, would receive $50 million, $215 million — or 81 percent — less than what was enacted in fiscal 2013.

stormsofmygrandchildrenThis is not the science-loving GOP of 1980, but some aberration that has sabotaged Earth science for twenty consistent years. Indeed, they several times tried to remove Earth observation and ocean/climate studies from the mission statements of both NASA and NOAA.  Can any modern person rationalize this?  Or convince himself/herself that this has anything to do with "conservatism" anymore?

Read also how the Space Subcommittee Republicans demand that funds be shifted away from asteroidal research, which offers the possibility of accessing vast wealth and resources, -- a new Gold-Platinum Rush in space -- while providing a useful intermediate mission for astronauts to develop deep space skills.  Instead they prefer an utterly pointless return to the sterile-useless-heavy Moon, and then armwave talk of a Mars Mission that this generation is nowhere near ready to even design.

Who - on Earth or anywhere - would try so hard to ALWAYS be wrong?

== Science Miscellany ==

Astronomers from 11 different institutions in the UK have joined forces to hunt for alien life, setting up a network to coordinate their activity. The UK SETI Research Network will fund research that considers new ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence. The group will also buy listening time on radio telescopes.

==And Finally==

Striking correlation between infection and mood disorders: Researchers have found that every third person who is diagnosed for the first time with a mood disorder had been admitted to hospital with an infection prior to the diagnosis. That notion adds another facet to the "hygiene hypothesis" that links a variety of autoimmune conditions to an inflammatory response caused by the loss of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Changes to the English language so subtle you don't notice; i.e. from "they started to walk" to "they started walking."

"Standard IQ tests are problematic on many levels — not least, because they do very little to tell us about the quality of our thinking. Looking to overcome this oversight, psychologist Keith Stanovich has started to work on the first-ever Rationality Quotient test." An interview that forges into deep territory, revealing just how difficult it is for humans to do the thing we are most proud-of.


Z said...

Silicate weathering hasn't gone unstudied- it's actually the probable focus of my next research project. A few touchstones-

Ground silicates in river catchments:

Two stage process via the production and neutralization of HCl:

Plenty more can be found under the heading of 'carbon mineralization' and 'accelerated weathering.'

Alex Tolley said...

To be fair, the Nasa asteroid proposal has been severely criticized by the space science community. Whereas the original concept required development of a craft for deeper space travel, the new proposal is just robotic capture and human manipulation in near space.
What is achieved (capability and science)for the cost of flying humans to high orbit?

Ah, now I get the Calvin proposal. The missing bit was sinking the organic carbon rich surface waters. What is not clear is how that sinking works. The water will have warmed, so when it exits the pipe, won't it tend to rise as a plume again? If it is cooled, that takes extra energy - is that accounted for in the plan?
It is an interesting proposal, and I would commend it if it works in reducing ocean acidity directly.
Has anyone started to seriously model this approach for viability?

Alex Tolley said...

Scrub the upwelling problem. As long as the water is cooled sufficiently below the lower thermocline temp, it will not rise to the surface again.

The comments section for the proposal raises some interesting issues, most notably whether the scale is sufficient to have much impact, and whether drawing up CO2 rich deep water might be a problem. Modeling and a pilot project seems worth making.

However just this week a report suggested that the BP Gulf spill has caused greater environmental services damage than originally estimated, just as BP is pushing back against paying for the economic damage it caused. It is likely that industry capture of the US MMC allowed lax regulatory oversight adding to the risk. The US government also is suspected of being complicit in underestimating the oil spill. Certainly it was involved in keeping the extent of the oil spill opaque, rather than transparent. Since we cannot seem to regulate effectively, and we will need more energy, more aggressive support of nuclear and alternative energy seems appropriate, plus adding steepening carbon taxes to discourage consumption of carbon fossil fuels.

David Brin said...

Alex the asteroid proposal is to part the captured roids into LUNAR orbit. Which would help reassure folks about crashing rocks. Sending astronauts out to visit the retrieved rocks would be of limited immediate use, other than giving the manned program something higher and more ambitiously incremental to shoot for.

It would establish our abilities to move at will in cis-lunar space, allowing private ventures (if they choose) to get billionaires to finance a return to the (currently useless) moon. The same capabilities will lay groundwork for Mars missions and/or actual industrial activity with retrieved astreoids.

Ken Burnside said...

David, I grew up in Alaska.

Summer images of the state being cloud free, and "snow free" were fairly common in the 1980s.

The primary driver of cloud formation in the state is the Japan Current curling around the southern edge; as the difference between the current's temperature and surface temperatures equalize, the amount of water it releases as cloud vapor drops. It then picks up again in the fall. It's sort of a time-delayed Indian Monsoon season-effect.

Because of how the westerlies and the mountain ranges (Brooks in the north, Alaska/Rockies in the south) work, it's very easy for the Interior of the state to be cloud free in the summer. That just leaves the climate zone of the North Slope, which tends to be cloud free in the summer anyway do to a lot of sunlight.

The real sign of global warming in Alaska is that that "clear space image" you shared is becoming less common; the climate is moderating there - less dry in the summer, warmer in the winter, and its' shifting from semi-arid taiga forest to coniferous and whatever you'd call a "cold mangrove swamp" along the Yukon river and its tributaries.

Alex Tolley said...

"The same capabilities will lay groundwork for Mars missions and/or actual industrial activity with retrieved astreoids."

Wasn't the point of the original mission to develop long duration hardware as a stepping stone to Mars, while at the same time having an asteroid science target? This would test recycling, systems reliability, the ability of people to travel well away from lunar space and test their abilities to do this, etc, etc. The new proposal dumps most of that for a mission with a much lower bar of achievement.

I agree that the robotic return of an asteroid is new technology, but the target will have to be very small. What will the astronauts be doing exactly, other than potentially contaminating the samples?

Without significantly increasing the NASA budget, it is arguable that we should divert more of the funds to space and planetary science, restoring project funding to canceled missions.

David Brin said...

Ken very interesting!

Alex... exactly. Sending men to cis-lunar captured asteroids is exactly what we could accomplish with only 2x today's manned budget. ANY other goal will either cost much more than 2x or else have no ambitious accomplishments. Doing asteroidal work in lunar orbit is just right.

David Brin said...

Sperm whale poo takes iron from the depths where they feed and scatters it above, fertilizing the sea and removing CO2?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Interesting comment about whale poo,
I remember reading an article saying that the displacement of deep water to the surface by whales and other big deep diving creatures was of the same order as the displacement by the currents in the main fisheries.
Their take was that by killing off most of the big creatures we had effectively halved the oceans life carrying ability.
To extend that to CO2 - we have effectively halved the oceans ability to sequester CO2

David Brin said...

Duncan I assign you to hunt down that article!

Mike Frank said...

I was listening to some scientists on NPR's Science Friday talking about the rising acidity of the oceans due to the water absorbing the excess CO2 in the atmosphere. They were saying that this higher acidity is killing coral and other invertebrates throughout the world. Would the plan offered help remove this excess CO2 from the ocean water and lower the acidity?

Duncan Cairncross said...

I have found the article

Unfortunately it is behind the New Scientist pay-wall
And I don't have a subscription
The article was
"Vital giants: Why living seas need whales"
and it was in the 12th July 2011

Duncan Cairncross said...

Vital Giants -

Large animals like whales are big eaters – but all marine life goes hungry without them. Let them live and the oceans will thrive again

PICTURE an ocean teeming with life: the sky darkened by massive flocks of birds, giant whales clouding the air with the vapour from their blows and as far as the eye can see, schools of fish breaking the surface to escape myriad predators. Such sights were common before we arrived on the scene.

From historical accounts it is clear that today's oceans are a pale shadow of their former glory. We know what happened to the whales - we killed almost all of them - but why aren't the seas swarming with other animals instead? With fewer whales eating them, for instance, you would expect there to be far more krill in the Southern Ocean, but strangely there seems to be a lot less

Duncan Cairncross said...

"They do so in at least three ways. The first is simply by mixing up ocean waters, which can return some nutrients to the waters above the thermocline.

The second way in which animals can boost ocean productivity is by nutrient scavenging - feeding at depth and bringing nutrients back to the sunlit zone. Sperm whales, for instance, feed on squid and fish at great depths, and defecate at the surface. Models suggest that this recycling of deep material may well be significant for essential elements such as iron.

The third way in which animals may boost ocean productivity is by recycling nutrients within the sunlit zone.

Whales produce buoyant plumes of faecal material that functions as liquid manure. Recent measurements of the iron content of the faeces of baleen whales by my team show that concentrations in whale faeces are at least 10 million times the background level in seawater.

David Brin said...

Wow interesting stuff!

Now a question... can any of you tell me if it's true that Temple Grandin mentioned me in an interview on KQED recently? I thought I listened to both of the ones found via google and heard nothing like that... though she certainly is well-worth listening to!

Ian said...

Distributing Titanium Dioxide in the upper atmosphere remains one of the most effective means of global warming mitigation and I'm disappointed it hasn't attracted more attention.

The other Great Green hope is bio-char.

Alex Tolley said...

What is teh advantage of dispersing TiO2 in the atmosphere compared to painting ground structures white? Is it the potentially larger coverage?

Jumper said...

The "silicate rocks" for ocean de-carbonization didn't make much sense until I saw it is the calcium content in granite which helps to lock down CO2. That calcium is not previously saturated with carbon (not carbonate form.) Nor is the other mineral content of the other constituents.

Alex Tolley said...

On a related note to Whales and fertilization, there is evidence that removal of apex predators damages ecosystems and their productivity.
Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth

We tend to hunt many of the apex predators which may be resulting in some of the loss of ocean fertility.

Larry C. Lyons said...

Dr. Brin,

You said,
"Striking correlation between infection and mood disorders: Researchers have found that every third person who is diagnosed for the first time with a mood disorder had been admitted to hospital with an infection prior to the diagnosis. That notion adds another facet to the "hygiene hypothesis" that links a variety of autoimmune conditions to an inflammatory response caused by the loss of healthy bacteria in the gut."

First off the phrase mood disorders can range from mild depression through significant depression that requires hospitalization. You can also relate reported illness to depression and significant anxiety (which is also defined by the phrase mood disorder). I would suspect that unless more details are needed the simplest explanation is that the two covary rather than are in a causal relationship or more likely there's a third factor involved. This seems like too pat of an explanation to be likely.

Ian said...

Alex, you can cover a much larger area with an aerosol.

There was an old NAS study which concluded that firing dust into the upper atmosphere from naval guns was the most cost-effective and achievable mitigation strategy.

Subsequently there have been suggestions you could discharge the dust from passenger aircraft on commercial flights.

A highly-dispersed aerosol is also less likely to have localized climatic effects.

locumranch said...

Larry is spot on:

This so-called correlation between infection and mood disorders, while 'striking' to incredibly credulous, proves little or nothing in terms of causality. It is merely anti-scientific gobbledygook reminiscent of the similarly 'strikingly causal' correlation between ice cream consumption and # of deaths by drowning.

First, mood disorder & mental illness rates already affect 'every third person' (varying between 26% and 34% of the total population depending on your reference). Second, the diagnosis of the above mental conditions must necessarily presuppose an initial medical exam which can be easily correlated with (or 'caused by') some real or imagined 'infection'. And, third, mental illness also correlates with disproportionately high medical utilization which means more and more antibiotic prescriptions.

Even more disheartening is our host's technological fetish which eshews proven biological processes in favour of mechanical crackpottery. Mechanical push-pull ocean pumps, my posterior.

I say we do the opposite. We should discard our host's mechanistic anti-biological clockwork morality about our environment; we should stop confusing biological "fecundity" with "a poisoned morass of algae and jellyfish"; and we should assist the Earth as it fixes itself through proven CO2 sequestration processes already occurring the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Morality, environment, culture, climate, technology and humanity are ultimately unimportant: In the end, its only 'Adapt or Die'.


Alex Tolley said...

@Larry Hart - but see this report that is about causative influence, not just covariance.

It would not surprise me that our microbiome influences mood too.

David Brin said...

Ah... " the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Gulf of Mexico." as pictures of Gaian health. I need say nothing. The fellow raves.

Ian said...

Hypoxia and algal blooms are associated with decreased total biomass (and carbon).

They also lead to increased emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.

Fertilization in the open ocean is unlikely to lead to hypoxia which is typically found in enclosed waters such as lakes or partially enclosed waters suchhas bays and gulfs

Acacia H. said...

Considering the Gulf of Mexico is suffering from a lack of oxygen, why not set up some floating windmills with a generator that pushes air underwater? Basically like what you do for a fish tank. If you set it up in the zones where the dieoffs happen then you could create oases of oxygenation where fish can escape to.

Alternatively, seeing that we have an increasing amount of phosphorus there, has there been any thought of filtering water in these dieoff zones to try and recover phosphorus for use in our farms? Seeing that phosphorus is becoming increasingly scarce over time, eventually you'd think this would be economical. At the very least it's something to spend research grant money on, for the dual purposes of cleaning up the environment and recovering phosphorus.

Rob H.

Ian said...

Increasing water exchange between anoxic zones and the open ocean might actually both fertilizer the open ocean and improve productivity in the anoxic zones.

Ian said...

Robert: the Dutch do actually recover Phosphorus from the mouth of the Rhine but with current technology it's hugely exepnsive.

In most places it's way cheaper to stop Phosphorus entering the waterways in the first place by doing stuff like paying farmers to treat their effluent and discharge the sludge to land as fertilizer..

Jumper said...

Off topic, but lately I have been thinking about an intelligent race out there, who are convinced they are alone in the galactic neighborhood: they have for millenia spread their urine in clouds around their star system, and no one has marked the spot yet...

Yes, I'm sirius.

David Brin said...

Jumper... eep....

locumranch said...

When Ian says that hypoxia and algae blooms are associated with "decreased biomass", he confuses fauna with flora as the term "algae blooms" clearly describes an increase in flora-based biomass. David does something similar when he redefines Mediterranean "fecundity" as "a poisoned morass", confusing a lack of diversity with sterility, which increases the drama of his 'Chicken Little'isms. It provides delicious irony to our conversations as the self-described optimist runs around screaming "The Sky is Falling" and the self-described 'Foxy Loxy" pessimist remains rational, calm and (as DB would say) "raving'. Birds of a feather flock together.


Ian said...

"When Ian says that hypoxia and algae blooms are associated with "decreased biomass", he confuses fauna with flora as the term "algae blooms" clearly describes an increase in flora-based biomass. "

No, Ian who worked for the Queensland EPA on projects aimed at reducing run-off into Moreton Bay and on managing algal blooms in South East Queensland dams is saying that the increase in one form of "floral-based biomass" is accompanied by a decrease in other forms of plant biomass and in animal biomass which results in a net loss of biomass.

David Brin said...

It's not the incessant wrongness, it is the 16-year old's contemptuous certainty, while being cockeyed wrong and incurious over the POSSIBILITY of being wrong.

Any biologist will explain that species diversity and complexity of food chains is a fundamental metric of ecosystem health. Any economist or historian or local fisherman in the Mediterranean will tell you that a morass of algae is not healthy. The vast amounts of methane emitted by such blooms more than make up for inhaled CO2.

But ah... 16 year olds....

Tony Fisk said...

I watch locumranch's 'contrarian reasoning' with bemused bewilderment, wondering where to even start... (suggesting that one shouldn't try)

Ian beat me to it. From there, the bit about 'confusing diversity loss with sterility' just got even limper.

It's a bit like arguing with the Black Knight, isn't it? (NoItIsnt!)

Tony Fisk said...

Speakiing of contrarian 16 yos

locumranch said...

It's easy to dismiss contrarian opinion as either juvenile or ignorant with "contemptuous certainty".. The problem is that the opinions which I express above are neither. Instead, they represent the authoritative opinions of certain botanists, cell biologists and biochemists, all of which stands for nothing when confronted by the ignorant certitude of glorified accountants, astrophysicists who think oil comes from dinosaurs and Rube Goldberg Machinery cultists.

News flash. Oil comes predominantly from Algae rather than dinosaurs -- so it stands to reason that it will again -- and species diversity is merely a measure of ecological health rather than a determining factor as evidenced by the dominant human monoculture. Also, Economics is not a science; astrophysicists make good astrophysicists but poor biochemists; and the term 'technology' refers to "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purpose" rather than mere mechanism.

Take heed, little ones: We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. Try to listen more in order to mature.


Tony Fisk said...

Who has *ever* said that oil comes from dinosaurs?

Please name your 'certain botanists, cell biologists and biochemists'

Ian said...

"Take heed, little ones: We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. Try to listen more in order to mature."

Says the endlessly prolix fool who probably posts twice as much here as any other commentator.

David Brin said...

It's not that the contrary opinions frighten me. I adore debating peers. It is that the faux-logic is nearly always utterly puerile and inane.

One time in ten, there is a glimmer of the adult mind he will become. And for that sake, tolerate.

rewinn said...

//* We have two ears and one mouth*//

Two eyes.
Ten fingers.
No wonder people are so prolix on the internet!!!