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Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

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That a half-baked scheme like this would not only get published in the Times but legitimately might be worth trying is a sign of just how desperate we are to do something about climate change without actually doing anything at all to change the fundamental problem.

As crazy as it might sound, geoengineering the oceans by adding iron — in effect, fertilizing them — may offer the best, most effective and most affordable way not just to slow the march of global warming but to reverse its course by directly drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. The U.S. government needs to start testing it now, before the climate system spins off into an even more disastrous state.

This geoengineering would in many ways replicate a natural process that has been underway for probably billions of years. Here’s how it works: Iron-rich dust blows off the land and into the seas, fertilizing algae and plankton. The more they grow, the more they convert carbon dioxide in the air to organic carbon, some of which eventually sinks to the watery depths. Studies suggest that this natural process of increasing iron-rich dust in the oceans takes so much carbon out of the atmosphere that at some point along the way it may have helped bring on the ice ages. But human beings have interrupted that natural cycle. Though growing deserts send more dust into the ocean, agricultural practices to preserve topsoil have the opposite effect, keeping dust out of the ocean and likely, in our opinion, contributing to more warming overall.

There have already been a significant number of direct scientific experiments into this kind of geoengineering. From 1993 to 2009, about a dozen experiments used ships to deposit iron into ocean patches up to about 10 miles in diameter. The results showed that this approach could alter the exchange of carbon between the air and the sea, increasing the amount of carbon pulled from the atmosphere. They also showed the tremendous impact this approach could have, for a very low cost. One study found that each iron atom can catalyze reactions that convert up to 8,000 molecules of carbon dioxide to plankton or algae.

As an environmental historian, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems like it would respond to this with force, but I dunno, what the hell us are we going to do? Insane geoengineering proposals make as much sense as anything else I guess.

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