back to article New boffinry: North Atlantic could be massive CO2 sink

British oceanographers say they have found evidence that phytoplankton growth in the north Atlantic is sharply limited by the availability of iron. The seagoing boffins suggest that their research could have important implications for efforts to fight climate change, as phytoplankton can absorb large amounts of CO2 from the …


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  1. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    A use for the car scrappage scheme then

    The government's car scrappage scheme that is currently pumping millions of pounds into foreign economies could have a use after all.

    Take all those traded in cars and dump them in the north atlantic and all that rusting steel should release plenty of iron.

    Alright, I'm getting it.

  2. Charles 9 Silver badge

    No offense...

    ...but if one were to put more iron in the North Atlantic, could not this photoplankton bloom bring about some form of collateral damage, such as radically altering populations of other sealife in the area (for example, some undersea life may not like the decrease of underwater sunlight while others may start gorging on the plentiful plankton.

  3. Jody

    Use second-hand oil rigs as fish food

    So it turns out that dumping the Brent Spar in 1995 would have fed algae with thousands of tonnes of iron as the structured decayed and created enormous blooms of CO2-gobbling phytoplankton. Well done Greenpeace.

  4. Tony Barnes

    Is this actually news?

    This idea has been floated around A LOT.

    It sounds all nice, but has the potential to poison fish stock and generally fuck up the ocean IIRC. Also there is the MASSIVE responsibility that comes with any sort of geo-engineering idea, does no-one remember Highlander II...??

  5. Conor Turton

    Oh dear

    Sounds like more grasping at straws meddling. They'll do that, the phytoplankton will thrive and then there'll be unforseen consequences which will then require more meddling.

    The simple fact is that climate science is at best a guess. Nobody has a clue of ALL the factors that affect it and new ones are being discovered on an almost monthly basis. Therefore meddling with one thing can have serious repercussions elsewhere.

  6. h 6
    Thumb Up


    We just dumped 30 armored personnel carriers and several shipping containers off the coast of south carolina to beef up the reefs. Wonder if any of that will help the northern phytoplankton?

  7. Anonymous Coward

    So... there is another utility for target practice after all...

    US have been sinking their WWII fleet in reef-absent seas, hoping they will become inhabited by larger sea-going species (there)after, thus creating an artificial life-filled reef.

    (Most say it is pure BS, they just want to get rid of the f*ckton of rusting warships without creating a navigational hazard and freeing some parking space near ports, but what the hell).

    Apparently, not just the natural protection the large structure provides to smaller species, it also feeds the phytoplankton directly, which makes perfect sense in a twisted way, since it is proven these sunken ships swarm with life barely immediately after reaching Kursk-depth. Pick a method that makes you more fuzzy and warm about it, or both.

    Should they come up with a ship-grinding ordnance a la James Bond, perhaps the whole process should be faster then?

    Pirates knew the value of sea-going recycling, and feeding the endangered species (sharks) for over 300 years now.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    lack of iron

    I'd blame all those environment wreckers who prevented Brent Spar from being dumped in the North Atlantic where it would now be providing a much needed source of extra iron.

  9. Richard 102

    Everything old is new again

    I seem to recall reading something similar about the Antarctic, around 25 years ago. You can't just dump old cars there, you have to get the iron dissolved into the water, so you'd wind up sending iron dust into planes, pipetting them into the ocean, ...

  10. Stevie Silver badge


    See what happens when bloody tree-huggers stop us dumping scrap into the sea where it clearly belongs?

    What price your 70s smug self-satisfaction now, ECO-actioners? Save the plankton! Throw an old bike off a pier today!

  11. Joe User

    Where does phytoplankton live?

    "as phytoplankton can absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere."

    Correction: Phytoplankton absorb CO2 from water. The ocean has to absorb the unwanted amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere first.

  12. frank ly

    A Little knowledge....

    I suspect they haven't considered the entire system and would be tinkering with just a small part of it.

    Suppose they did this, small amount of extra iron in the sea, phytoplankton grow more, absorb CO2 from the atmosphere (via dissolved CO2 in the sea), phytoplankton die (as all living creatures do), then they sink to the bottom of the sea, they rot, they release carbon dioxide and methane as they rot...........oh crap!.

    All the 'extra' CO2 in the atmosphere has come about by burning fossil fuels, which were locked up carbon. We could grow lots of trees, chop them down and bury them in deep mud and then that would remove CO2 and lock up the carbon and also provide a source of coal in a few million years time for our descendants. I doubt if anyone will take my ideas seriously though :(

  13. Anonymous Coward


    is everyone assuming that dumping stuff in the ocean will result in iron being released in a form that can be absorded by marine life?

    E.g. the treatment for anaemia isn't being fed iron ingots - not even miniature ones.

  14. Chris Gray 1

    Just the iron

    To those suggesting chucking things in the ocean: keep in mind that even if this does turn out to be a good thing, its only the iron that is wanted. So, before using this as an excuse to dispose of your unwanted goods, please remove everything that isn't iron, first. This includes paint, oil, grease, artificial rubber, etc.

    Not much point in trying to feed plankton if you are poisoning everything.

  15. anarchic-teapot

    @Joe User

    Actually, from the point of view of marine-dwelling species, oceans *are* part of the atmosphere. It's just not the one we mammals can breathe.

    Well, the idea of sinking obsolete US army equipment (presumably that means most of it, much like all the other armies in this world) sounds a lot more fun that trying to make the phytoplankton eat its damn spinach. I've been trying for years, it's a total washout.

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Simplistic idea.

    Not simple idea.

    Might work, might not.

    Can you say massively cross-coupled systems with unknown unrealised coupling.?

  17. Rich 11 Silver badge

    Is this normal?

    But why are the phytoplankton short of iron? If the present situation is a normal part of their lifecycle or population cycle then feeding them iron now may only create greater instabilities further down the line.

    It's rare that there are any simple answers in a complex system.

  18. Graham Marsden

    @Jody and Stevie

    Congratulations! You get today's 20/20 hindsight award... See icon for details.

    ... of course if this turns out to have drawbacks that weren't obvious now, but turn up 20 years in the future, you'll be obliged to return the pin, although you can keep the rest...

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Collateral indeed

    "if one were to put more iron in the North Atlantic, could not this photoplankton bloom bring about some form of collateral damage"

    How about feeding the little fishies so the ailing populations of e.g. Atlantic cod have a chance to get back up from "vulnerable" status? I know, that might not qualify as damage so the eco-puritans are bound to ignore the possibility but I find the prospect exciting nevertheless...

  20. Anonymous Coward

    This is new?

    Phytoplankton growth in the oceans being limited by iron availability is pretty universal and has been known for decades. Even proposing to seed the oceans with iron is old.

  21. Lyall

    @Tony Barnes

    "Does no-one remember Highlander II...??"

    No Tony, I immediately repressed it like so many others, worst, sequel, ever.

  22. Lord Raa

    @Tony Barnes

    We try not to remember Highlander 2.

  23. copsewood

    frank ly

    "We could grow lots of trees, chop them down and bury them in deep mud and then that would remove CO2 and lock up the carbon and also provide a source of coal in a few million years time for our descendants."

    Indeed, the paper industry already do the chopping up for you. Then all you need to do is take the lowest quality paper (including plastic, staples, cardboard) already bundled up which is excess to recycling requirements and bury it in suitable landfill sites. The problem is lack of suitable landfill sites. This, however, does have the advantage of using the trees as paper (e.g. the 10 kilos a month that gets thrown through my letter box unsolicited and straight into the recycling bin) once or a few times first.

  24. Anonymous John

    I for one

    welcome our new climate stabilising phytoplankton overlords.

  25. noodle heimer

    I'm so confused

    I had thought that the Register's official editorial policy was that there was no need to pay attention to CO2 levels?

    Yet, this article seems to imply that polluting the Atlantic with soluble iron would be a good thing because it would promote CO2 capture?

    Could you please get James Inhofe, your chief scientific advisor, to let you know which way to report this story? Good news, or totally unnecessary?

    While you're at it, you probably need to sign up for his geoscience and earth history course. You likely already have the textbook inherited from Gran, but I've seen far too many Reg hacks act as if Evolution is something more than the devil's work.

  26. Bounty
    Thumb Up

    no no no

    What we need to do is genetically engieer the plankton to fly, then they can fly to the iron or whatever else they needed. DUH!

  27. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Ummm... this has been tried

    It wasn't that long ago that an iron fertilisation experiment was tried in the Antarctic Ocean which is also iron deficient.

    The phytoplankton bloom - and are almost immediately gobbled up by exploding populations of zooplankton which feed fish... This keeps the majority of the carbon in the upper part of the water where it can re-enter the atmosphere rather than sinking it to the ocean sediments where you want it.

    The only new thing here is that the North Atlantic is poorer in dissolved iron than we thought.

    Mind you if the Icelanders are clever they'll fertilise the oceans, get more plankton, which are gobbled up by copepods, which are then snacked on by capelin which go on to feed minke whales - which are delicious and best served rare with a portion of guilt on the side.

  28. Jim 62
    Thumb Down

    We have been down this road.

    With the speculation that a cap and trade bill would be passed, companies have experimented with adding iron. They found that although there efforts where successful that the phytoplankton was soon after consumed by fish and fueled an increase in fish population, which in turn produce CO2.

  29. Allan George Dyer

    Early environmentalists...

    so the Titanic was an early attempt to improve phytoplankton growth?

    @AC: "E.g. the treatment for anaemia isn't being fed iron ingots - not even miniature ones."

    But iron-fortified breakfast cereals contain iron filings... is that just misleading marketing?

  30. Toastan Buttar
    Thumb Up

    It's fizzy, it's ginger, it's phenomenal

    Save the planet by pouring bottles of Barr's Irn Bru into the ocean.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    oh no, not again !

    This hasn't been thought up by them same boyo's that figured putting Nile bass in Victoria lake was a good idea, has it ?

  32. Anonymous Coward

    CO2 sinks

    So, let me get this straight -

    - we're running short of CO2 sinks, of which trees are probably the best.

    So instead of stopping companies felling vast swaths of trees in the Amazon, we're instead planning to promote the growth of aquatic organisms thus interfering with yet another (vast) ecosystem. A large proportion of trees still being felled are to make way for methane producing agriculture(*) (Methane being a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2).

    If this is humanities response to a major threat to its existance, then we're (at least our children) are all doomed.

    Mines the one with a boarding pass for the 'Axiom' in the pocket.

    (*) Or at least for palm oil plantations which are nowhere near as effective in sinking CO2 as the rainforest they replace.

  33. Stevie Silver badge


    [Graham Marsden ] Spoken like a man with a back porch piled high with rotting "recyclable" newspapers and old egg boxes.

    Burn it all and help redress the imbalance between oceanic and atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels! Think of the children, man!

  34. Tom Pittman

    Brown water?

    Of course the dark-colored water caused by plankton blooms will absorb more heat from the summer sun, warming the North Atlantic.

    Then the freshwater sequestered in the Arctic icepack and Greenland icecap will melt, diluting the mineral content of the ocean and opening another can of worms!

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    For the love of god, what is wrong with you people?

    Have the hair-shirted green morons pounded your brains into submission?

    There's no reason not to consider a technical response to the problem - half of Holland is below sea level - their "enviro-meddling" worked quite nicely, the Wash was dried out and became hugely productive farmland for many years until we decided we wanted the wildlife more than the food.

    Technology works, it makes our lives better, it means we don't have to live in mud huts wondering where our next meal is coming from and we don't just sit hoping the pox just gets better.

    Even the bloody hippy trains required cutting slices through mountain sides and melting the iron out of the rock.

    Irrigate the deserts, farm the oceans, and bend the land to our will.

    Goddam hippies.

  36. Rob

    @Tom Pittman

    Don't panic, we'd never get to that stage of the problem. According to all the other posters on here we'll dramatically reduce our CO2, it won't stop the sea levels rising though cause we've just dumped a load of old crap in it, so I think we'll drown before the sea temp rises enough to melt the caps, shame really looks like a chilly death for us all ;)

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin terms of unintended consequences

    Has anyone else hypothesised a reason why the North Atlantic might be short of iron? Perhaps the increase in grass monoculture in the United States/Canada has resulted in more soil erosion - if this soil were low in iron then it would tend to cover the iron bearing sediments in the ocean, leading to growth limitation as discussed. Just a thought.

    Of course, another thought is that the Americans exploded atom bombs in space over the North and South poles during the fifties and sixties, causing melting of the icecaps. Global warming is real, ecological damage is real but the symptoms aren't always as straightforward as people imagine - especially the deniers.

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