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April 30, 2007

The Iron Shore Of Science Journalism

Nature News deletes message found in bottle

The gap between environmental science and its representation to the public continues to widen. Consider  Nature's online coverage of the discovery that "Each atom of iron supplied from below pulled more than 100,000 atoms of carbon out of the atmosphere by stimulating plankton growth " This startling fact is to be found in Nature's peer reviewed pages , in a study of ocean water upwelling around Kerguelen-- Effect of natural iron fertilization on carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean.

Debate about its future policy implications is already off to a false start. Science news is, by definition, new , and the story surfaced on April 23 on the web in Nature News ,most  laymen and pundits only  point of contact with Nature , because they can read it sooner that the erudite hard copy version- and without paying the stiff price.

So forget the peer-reviewed article by Stephane Blain of the Oceanography and Biogeochemistry Laboratory in Marseille ,and forty six colleagues. What really counts is what Quintin Schiermier has to say online  ,under a headline fit for a purple tyrannosaur lecturing tots in a nanny state nursery: 

Only Mother Nature Knows How To Fertilize The Ocean
Its subheads are minor masterpieces of tabloid science in the service of Green politics. One,

'Natural input of nutrients works ten times better than manmade injections'

dis-informs by inverting the math -- 'manmade injections' still enjoy 10,000 to 1 leverage in carbon sequestration. The other speaks for itself :

Geo-engineering the ocean won't work

Despite the headline , the scientific article is about studying biogeochemistry from the bottom up, and the polemic dismissal of using iron to make trace-element-poor offshore regions bloom is a manifest example of Green editorial engineering. Instead of the 46 authors , Nature News quotes only one marine scientist , Dr. Ulf Riebesell , whom Schiermier notes " has been involved in one previous ocean fertilization experiment."

Nature News offers only Riebesell's contention that: "What the team has observed is probably the optimal efficiency of carbon export achievable, you just can't achieve nature's efficiency...That's why geo-engineering the ocean won't work." It also states of fertization studies at sea "An estimated 80-95% of the iron in these experiments has been 'lost.' This negative spin  contrasts with the  Biogeochemistry review by New Zealand oceanographer Philip Boyd in the  magazine ,which notes both the difference between continuous mixing of deep waters and brief fertilization experiments, and that the new study  of natural iron accounts for only 20% of the plankton bloom's uptake.

The study of optimizing iron delivery in synergy with oceanic plant nutrients has barely begun . Yet though speculation about its future needs taking with a rather large grain of (ferrous sulfate enriched) salt , Nature itself properly concedes that , even in its present  infant form--chucking  raw iron salts over the transom of research vessels -- , ocean fertilization couldIn_irons_8_2 reduce CO2 in the air by 3%--that's 1.4 billion tons annually.

No reasonable scientist expects a new species of engineering , Geo- or otherwise, to converge on the limits of nature and practicality in the first few tries. Ocean water comes in many flavorsand highly evolved phytoplankton communities have evolved in the seven seas to take advantage of the taste of each . It took decades of research on land to develop the soil-specific targeted micronutrients ( E.G. boron and copper ) that enable the Green Revolution to fend off famine in human communities too poor to afford bulk nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers.

If anything should make mother nature queasy,it's the odor of 19th century Vitalism that clings to  Nature News anemic coverage of iron's huge carbon offset return. The premise that iron atoms touched by man are somehow different from those upwelling from the deep green sea may appeal to Dark Greens and Al Gore , but it too much recalls the metaphysical aversion to biotech of the religious Right, and pop ecologists who blanch at ocean fertilization while exhorting us to eat farmed salmon raised on a Geritol spiked diet.

Half a century ago , Al Gore's erstwhile mentor, atmospheric scientist Roger Revelle observed that in pouring CO2 into the air "human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment."  Anxious to stop that experiment , Al  has designed a Wayback Machine instead.  His call to cut CO2 90% by 2050 is tantamount to turning the  energy clock back to 1880--and waving  goodbye to a boatload of  benefits wrought by carbon-based civilization in the long century since oceanographers first embarked on the Challenger Expedition.

Engineers instead ask how best to design the experiment , something which necessarily includes expanding interdisciplinary understanding of the biogeochemical cycle of iron. From colloid chemistry ( the Victorian term for nanotech ) to nutritional ecology, that remains largely unpaid for and undone. By ignoring the technical depth of this dawning controversy , Nature News has created an unnecessary hazard to scientific navigation , for  Nature is a flagship journal many media leaders follow more closely than The Economist , presuming its rigorously  peer-reviewed wake will lead to safe harbor.

Suffering Nature News online to pop off Green flares prematurely can instead lure them onto the scientific rocks. 

So please read the whole thing in  Nature itself , available any virtually any science library , to get past the Post-Earth Day, Pre-IPCC report  press conference bits and access both the Biogeochemistry review and the new science itself.


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