The Intersection

Geoengineering Time

In its latest issue, Time magazine singles out “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.” One of those is very literal: geoengineering.

Time‘s piece on the subject is a bit muddled–it lists iron fertilization of the oceans as a way of reducing sunlight to the planet–but the bottom line is unfortunately very accurate: “Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.”

If you wanted evidence of geoengineering entering mainstream social discourse, it’s hard to think of something better than an article like this, in Time.


  1. #1 Lizzie
    March 17, 2008

    Good to see this topic gaining credibility and getting more attention from the public–it definitely deserves it. At our website at Discover Magazine, we just posted a slideshow on this topic.

  2. #2 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    March 17, 2008


    While it is a topic that needs attention, I’m not thrilled with Discover magazine’s coverage of iron fertilization. The biggest concerns are not acidification and blooms in my opinion, but rather our lack of understanding thresholds. Outside of Greenpeace, many academic institutions–including my own–are putting out white papers on the topic.

    From an earlier post I did at WIRED:

    Before we jump on the iron fertilization bandwagon, there are a few important things to consider…

    * We don’t know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

    * Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

    * Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

    * Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.

    * Short and long-term effects are unknown.

    * Some phytoplankton are also responsible for Red Tides a.k.a. Harmful Algal Blooms. When these occur, a myriad of marine life are killed and there are also dangers to human health from toxic species.

    * There are potential associated altered food webs, changes in pH called ocean acidification, and feedback which may actually lead to greater atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.

    * Last but not least, science has a long way to go in figuring out how to create the right market to facilitate offset efforts. While for-profit companies would like to begin making associated complex political and economic decisions regarding iron fertilization, the scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

    So in short, iron fertilization is an extremely complicated process and not merely a simple input and output equation. While it’s a reasonable idea in theory, it’s difficult to quantify and know what to expect. The trouble is that if we pass some critical threshold in loading iron into oceans, we don’t get a do-over.

  3. #3 Benjamin Franz
    March 17, 2008

    The problem with geo-engineering is that we may be stepping on a ‘swallowed the fly’ treadmill where we are required to take ever more drastic steps to ‘correct’ for the consequences of our last correction.

    We don’t know enough about how the whole system will react to assume that trying to “swallow a spider to swallow the fly” will not eventually lead to trying to “swallow a horse”.

  4. #4 decrepitoldfool
    March 17, 2008

    Maybe discussion of geoengineering will widen the realization that for good or ill we have already been engaged in it for some time.

  5. #5 Jimbo
    March 17, 2008

    Before geoengineering at large-scale is implemented, the much more cost effective step of aggressive energy conservation measures will certainly be tried first. With energy costs mounting upward, it’s inevitable.

  6. #6 Steve Bloom
    March 17, 2008

    What’s all this negative talk? I think we can all agree that geo-engineering makes at least as much sense as making the stability of the financial markets dependent on mortgage-backed securities.

  7. #7 Eric the Leaf
    March 17, 2008

    The notion that “we have already been engaged in” geo-engineering and therefore should continue in some other way is twisted logic. But whatever the argument, this is a fool’s errand.

  8. #8 Lance
    March 17, 2008

    “Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.”

    Best shot at what? Screwing up the oceans and attendant ecosystems over a non-problem?

    I’m with you Eric. Fool’s errand indeed.

  9. #9 Philip H.
    March 18, 2008

    Lance & Eric,
    I have to say I’m on your side with this one, sort of. In the latest ocean iron fertilizing proposals I see yet another attempt to bend nature to human will, simply because humans still want to deny two truths.

    The first truth we seek to hide from is that we humans are inextricably linked to the ecosystems around us. Those ecosystems give us our breathable air (which we then heat so well with our rhetoric), our food, and the basic raw materials from which we produce everything from sneakers to Smart Cars. Take away portions of the ecosystem, and we will suffer some sort of consequence – every action has an equal and opposite reaction after all. What fuels this decoupling, I fear, is the human inability to place a price tag or a cost of ownership on these common goods.

    The second truth that we hide from by geoengineering is that, as part of the ecosystems around us, we are having impacts to those ecosystems. Every oil well, every coal mine, every timber plantation, every factory farm, every burning river in Ohio has an impact on the ecosystem and its ability to provide the basic goods and services that we humans rely on. Individually, they may not have a significant global impact. But do the cumulative analysis, and it becomes clear that 6 billion people have a dispropotionate impact in these systems compared to other species. So why in the world would we think that one single tinker (adding iron to the oceans to “fertilize” them) would erase the cumulative impacts of all those other actions? It’s like saying that by not drinking water for a day, I can end the crisis of potable drinking water that is developing in the US desert southwest.

    So Lance, Eric, I’m with you. If we’re going to make our world a better place, lets ensure that we do so by altering how humans impact our world, not by altering our world to try to accommodate our impacts.

  10. #10 Lance
    March 18, 2008

    Phillip H.,

    I would like to see more emphasis on water pollution. Here in the Midwest our river systems are choked with sediment, fertilizers and pesticides from farm run-off and effluent from industrial sources and municipal sewage treatment facilities. These collect in local tributaries that feed into the Mississippi River and ultimately contribute to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

    It is shameful that I never hear anyone propose solutions that would clean up these ecosystems. Instead the environmental groups are fixated on “climate change” rather than this tangible and obvious disgrace. Maybe if there were polar bears in my local river system people would care about it.

    Maybe I can get Coca Cola to make commercials with cute river otters sharing an icey cold coke with a muskrat. You don’t see a lot of muskrats in advertising.

  11. #11 Philip H.
    March 18, 2008

    Having spent a lot of time in the bayous that receive all that Mississippi River water, I agree that water pollution is a significant problem. As you may have noticed, I have a hotlink in my name now, having joined the blogosphere. I’m working on a post relating to pollution that actually ites back to this topic. Hopefully it will be ready for prime time by tonight.

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