A team of UK scientists have discovered a natural process that could delay, or even end, the threat of global warming.
The researchers, aboard the Royal Navy’s HMS Endurance, have found that melting icebergs off the coast of Antarctica are releasing millions of tiny particles of iron into the southern Ocean, helping to create huge ‘blooms’ of algae that absorb carbon emissions. The algae then sinks to the icy depths, effectively removing CO2 from the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
According to lead researcher, Prof. Rob Raiswell of Leeds University, “The Earth itself seems to want to save us.”
Scientists have known for some time that artificially created algal blooms could be used to absorb greenhouse gases, but the technique has been banned for fear of causing unforeseen side effects in fragile ecosystems. However, based on the UK team’s evidence that the process has been occurring naturally for millions of years, and on a wide scale, the UN has given the green light for a ground-breaking experiment later this month.
The team will seek to create a massive algae bloom by releasing several tons of iron sulphate into the sea off the coast of the British island of South Georgia. The patch will apparently be large enough to be visible from space.
If successful, the technique could be rolled out across vast swathes of the Great Southern Ocean. Scientists calculate that if the whole 20 million square miles was treated, it could remove up to three and a half Gigatons of C02, equivalent to one eighth of all global annual emissions from fossil fuels.
It would be a huge irony if melting icebergs, until now a powerful symbol of the damage caused by global warming, reveal a process that may enable scientists to take steps that might drastically reduce, and potentially even halt, the threat of environmental catasrophe.
Image Credit – nick_russill via flickr.com on a Creative Commons license
Andrew is a writer and freelance journalist specialising in sustainability and green issues. He lives in Cardiff, Wales.