Geo-engineering refers to any deliberate attempt to manipulate the Earth’s climate and has been proposed as a way to counteract the negative effects of climate change (specifically global temperature increases), that are now seen as unavoidable. Generally the theories are based around releasing bio-active compounds into the air or oceans to capture the global warming gases, or releasing reflective particles into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of solar radiation heating the planet. The science behind it is simple, but predicting the results is pretty much impossible without a lot more research. What we do know for sure is that anything dumped into the air or oceans in large enough quantities will have an effect on our climate and the habitability of our planet.
So the rogue dumping of iron into the Pacific Ocean off the Canadian coast is of great concern for two reasons. The first is that no one actually knows what long-term effect this action will have on the local ecosystem, the second is that the dumping is alleged to be the result of an unsanctioned commercial operation by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. Under international law such actions are not only illegal, but also ethically unacceptable. All FiST Chat fans should Google this story themselves and monitor the developments.
While geo-engineering might show promise as a climate change solution, these methods should be approached with caution as they represent nothing more than a fight fire with fire approach. Assuming the dire climate predictions are correct, many scientists agree that the first approach must be to reduce the impact our emissions have on the earth’s atmosphere before we engage other solutions. Makes sense really. If we are messing up the world by pumping man-made gases into the air, is the solution really to pump some other man-made gas into the air? The global emissions causing our current climate issues are in fact the result of unintentional geo-engineering.
In the specific instance of the rogue iron dumping, the desired outcome is to seed an algal bloom (phytoplankton) to capture carbon and create a food source which allows the marine environment (read fish), to flourish. In theory this is a great idea that may have merit, but wouldn’t a better solution be to reduce ocean pollution and overfishing first? Similarly on land, carbon capture can be as simple as revegetation and regeneration of the environment. Alternately, microbes can be used to fix carbon (removing it from the atmosphere), without being released into the wild as Haida have done. In the safety of controlled bio-factories, these microbes could use the captured carbon to produce new hi-tech bio-products. In order to solve our environmental problems there needs to be careful thought as to how we caused them in the first place.
Geo-engineering also raises ethical questions around the concept of terraforming, which is really just a term for geo-engineering to make other planets habitable for humans. It’s a concept sure to be hotly debated by our space-faring descendants in centuries to come as the human species leaves planet earth to populate the galaxy.
Mars for instance has mineral rich asteroids nearby, making it the logical choice as next home of human-kind. We know the main elements of life are present in the Martian soil and atmosphere, and that life may have existed on the planet in times gone by. But now, while the planet appears a cold, desolate, lifeless and dusty world, NASAs Curiosity might be about to tell us otherwise. Terraforming Mars would be a difficult project, but by seeding it with imported compounds could one day create a (breathable) atmosphere, warm the planet and make it suitable for plants and humans.
It’s a nice thought that we could create another world to visit, or move to when we finally exhaust the Earth’s resources. But is it really the right thing to do? How would you feel if an alien race looking for a new home decided to terraform Earth’s atmosphere to suit their species without giving any thought to the long term effects for humans? What if these alien actions would ultimately make our planet uninhabitable for the life that spent billions of years evolving on it? If we don’t think it right that an alien life-form would do this to us, then why are we doing it to ourselves?
Watch FiST Chat 95: Geoengineering With Iron Dust for more on this topic.