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Seeding the ocean to capture carbon

Can stimulating plankton growth slow climate change? A crew from a company called Planktos is setting sail to find out. Image: Plankton bloom

Later this month, a crew from a company called Planktos will head for waters near the Galapagos Islands to see whether lowly plankton have a role in mitigating climate change.

The idea behind the venture is to create plankton "blooms," or large-scale growth, by seeding the ocean with iron, which stimulates plankton growth. As the plankton grows, it consumes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and removes it from the atmosphere.

Planktos is not the first to come up with the idea of capturing or sequestering carbon through plankton blooms. But the Foster City, Calif.-based company appears to be the first trying to commercialize ongoing research on the topic.

During the trip, the crew of about 16 will seed thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean with iron. After the growth phase, a percentage of that plankton will die and sink. Once the plankton are below 500 meters, they sequester the consumed carbon for centuries, said David Kubiak, director of communications for Planktos.

"We're mostly concerned with plankton that get below 500 meters. It puts them in deep enough ocean currents that they are out of the atmosphere for centuries," he said. "Below 1,000 meters and we're talking millennia."

The iron fertilization process has been proposed and tested before. The challenge, said Kubiak, is to get accurate information on the biological activity that a bloom causes and to measure how much carbon will be displaced.

Planktos scientists will use sensors to track how far the plankton sinks and watch what reaction it will cause in other sea creatures, including zooplankton, krill and other plankton feeders.

The Planktos boat, the Weatherbird II, expects to be there between four to six months to observe an entire cycle of growth and decay, he said. Those who previously attempted to measure the effects of this iron fertilization haven't stayed long enough, Kubiak said.

Skepticism among environmentalists
Many global warming experts contend that finding methods to capture carbon dioxide are an important tool in addressing climate change.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, earlier this year called for heavy investments to capture and sequester carbon underground at coal-fired power plants. Other projects have proposed using offshore oil and gas wells.

Planktos employees argue that the plankton method can not only address part of the climate change problem but also replenish plankton, which are in decline.

Plankton levels worldwide have dropped off 10 percent since the 1970s. Bringing back that 10 percent will take between 3 billion and 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to Kubiak.

The funding mechanism behind the company is relatively novel as well.

The company plans to make money by selling the carbon credits it expects to gain by sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide, said Kubiak. A subsidiary, called KlimaFa, is pursuing the same business model through reforestation in Europe.

News of the effort has brought about deep skepticism from some environmentalists who say that geo-engineering on that scale will lead to unknown problems.

Others questioned whether iron fertilization will actually result in or whether this method should qualify as viable carbon offsets.

Kubiak said that originally the founders of Planktos meant to pursue research projects but found a more receptive audience in the business world.

"All the (research) money is being soaked up by people who want to study, but not do anything themselves," he said.