Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation

Can you tell which of these orange splotches is evil? (Image: Giovanni/GES DISC/NASA)

Well, traditional conservation, anyway. The kind where you presume to “manage” a wildlife population by ensuring, year after year, that its population remains stable.

The problem is that as any population varies, so too does its behavior. Mortality curves, reproductive rates, vulnerability to pathogens and predators — a hundred other variables — all change with population density. It’s a complex system, full of cliffs and folds and intertwined curves unwinding across a range of conditions; and when you keep your population from varying, you only acquire data from a very narrow band of that tapestry. But Nature’s a fickle bitch, and sooner or later she’ll kick your population out of that comfort zone despite your best efforts. When that happens you’ll be adrift in a dark, data-free wilderness where anything can happen.

Unless you kick it out there yourself beforehand, to get some idea of what’s waiting for you.

The term is Adaptive Management and back in grad school days my supervisor was one of its  early champions. The idea was that you combine “management” with research, that you don’t strive to keep your system stationary year after year. Every now and then you cut your salmon quotas to zero, leave the scaly little buggers completely alone. Other years you hammer the shit out of them. In all cases you take notes— and gradually, over time, you beat back those dark zones, scratch out here there be dragons and scribble Ricker curves and Lotka-Volterra parameter values in their place. You do what Nature would do eventually anyway, only you do it on your own timetable, to a degree of your own choosing.

That’s the trick, of course: because sometimes there are dragons out there, and what if one of them swallows your salmon stock to extinction because you hammered them too hard? It’s a balancing act. You have to tread carefully, weigh risk against opportunity; the techniques used to find that sweet spot are what distinguishes Adaptive Management from just rolling the dice and unleashing a series of shotgun blasts.

A bit of Adaptive Management has just broken out off the west coast — admittedly a poor example thereof — and boy oh boy has it got people pissed.

An executive summary for those who’ve been too transfixed to look away from the ongoing train wreck of US electoral politics: back in July the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, in collaboration with a US business called Planktos, seeded a hundred tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean off the islands of Haida Gwaii. The goal was purely economic: to provoke a massive phytoplankton bloom and consequent increased salmon stocks, not to mention sucking carbon into primary production and locking it away on the seabed (which would allow the HRSC to claim carbon credits for their role in off-setting global warming).

Proximately, the gambit seems to have paid off: the resulting bloom covered ten thousand square kilometers and greatly exceeds the penny-ante impact of more “legitimate” experiments. Whether it will actually increase salmon yield remains an open question, but it seems a reasonable expectation; the project was inspired by a paper in Fisheries Oceanography which connected the dots between volcanic ash-fall, diatom blooms, and record salmon catches. As to the potential long-term carbon-sequestration impact, nobody knows.

In fact, not only does nobody know, nobody even seems to give a shit. They’re too busy pointing fingers. Discovery News regards Russ George, the entrepreneur behind the project, as a “Geoengineering nut“. David Suzuki decries the effort as “stupid”. Scientists and lawyers fill endless column inches with quotes about bad experimental design and the breaking of international treaties. The UN is gravely concerned, and has granted the Harper government an actual award (“The Dodo”) for its role in this fiasco; the Harper government, those champions of the environment, has in turn condemned the entire affair and is “investigating” (although their misgivings have been a bit muted by credible reports that they knew about the project in advance and did nothing to stop it, which makes them complicit).

For my part, I’m not going to argue with those who point out that the project was poorly planned, that phytoplankton blooms are often toxic, and that even when they aren’t local eutrophication often leads to anoxic “dead zones”. (I will observe that some of these charges tend to cancel each other out: you can’t both buy into Jay Cullen’s complaint that strong eddy circulation compromises experimental design while at the same time worrying about Alyssa Danigelis‘s specter of neurotoxic dead zones.) I have no trouble believing that Russ George isn’t interested in anything other than turning a fast buck (although if there are laws on the book that make it illegal to profit from climate-mitigation research, you have to wonder if its author had ever spent more than two minutes observing human behavior).

In terms of environmental damage, however, I can’t help noticing that right around the corner from Haida Gwaii, the city of Victoria BC flushes the raw sewage of eighty thousand people directly into the ocean. I can’t help noticing a thousand-square kilometer dead zone off the Oregon coast, or the seventeen-thousand-square-kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the continent-long daisy-chain of dead zones skipping merrily up the eastern seaboard. If I squint hard enough I can just barely keep myself from noticing the salmon farms along our coasts that not only generate their own local anoxic zones but which also spread disease, parasites, and bad genes to wild populations. (I trust I don’t have to remind you all of past and ongoing oil spills.) All of these impacts arise directly from human activity — and while few would claim to like any of these things, I find it curious that the one-time dumping of a load of nutrients into the open ocean would provoke such outrage while all these other, vastly more severe impacts get off with a shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do?

The fact is, the Haida-Gwaii patch is vastly bigger than any similar project heretofore attempted. It’s way out into Here There Be Dragons territory, and you know what? It’s a fucking data point.

Bad experimental design? Let me remind you of another badly-designed experiment: that time about a decade back when a bunch of religious fanatics ploughed into the World Trade Center to prove that their invisible sky fairy was tougher than ours. Those guys didn’t check their flight plans with the research community at all, but that didn’t stop the scientists from making some serious inroads into the impact of jet contrails on climate change. (Granted, that particular inroad turned out to be a dead end. That’s science for you.)

This is nature, damn it. It’s a complex metasystem, if you think it’s ever going to let you run a “controlled experiment” in the laboratory sense then I’ve got some voting machines in Ohio to sell you. If you make the perfect into the enemy of the potentially-adequate you’ll never stop running simulations, because there is no perfect. Meanwhile, outside the window, Nature’s rolling her own D20. One day she’s going to kick over that anthill you’ve been too chickenshit to poke at all this time, and then where you gonna be?

This plankton stuff is small potatoes anyway; you want something to get scared about, stop looking out to sea and look up instead. Climate change is hitting the poles and the tropics especially hard — and the tropics are just chock full of small poor countries already sinking, increasingly impatient as the so-called developed world sits on its ass and mumbles oxymoronically about clean coal. I wouldn’t blame them in the least if they got tired of waiting and started their own stratospheric geoengineering program out of self-defense — and it would be kind of nice if we had a bit of real-world data on that front, too, before it happened.

Make as many caveats as you like. Be cautious in your extrapolations, by all means. Remember that correlation is not causation, keep alternative hypotheses firmly in mind, scrawl Nature Is Not A Petri Dish onto a piece of duct tape and stick it over the Far Side cartoons yellowing on the wall. Be Adaptive in your “Management”. But use the goddamned data you’ve got. Don’t piss and moan because someone without all your degrees, someone more interested in bucks than biology, went out and took the first step when you were too fucking timid. Do it better.

Forget the world at large; Russ George’s sins pale into insignificance even set next the city of Victoria. The difference is, we can learn from his.

We’ve already kicked the whole world off-balance. We’re running out of time to figure out which way it’s falling.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday November 04 2012at 12:11 pm , filed under climate, marine, rant, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

22 Responses to “Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation”

  1. Red spots are always evil-est, so most all of the orange splotches are off the hook for evil. I think.

  2. [...] Experiment Posted on November 4, 2012 by Michael Tobis • 0 CommentsVia Stoat, an amazing rant that sheds some light on our quandary, from Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watt’s blog: [...]

  3. Stupid question:

    Can you recommend any informational resources for those of us who *have* been too transfixed to look away from the ongoing train wreck of US electoral politics?

    Bonus points if said resources aren’t propaganda pieces of one sort or another.

  4. Another stupid question: did anyone do a study on what the iron sulphate might do? Or was it just “they eat this, let’s dump that.” My strong point aint ocean going biology.

  5. [...] Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in: advanced civilizations, geoengineering, global warming, Kardashev Scale | Tagged: environment, esoteric science, geoengineering, global politics, Kardashev Levels [...]

  6. It appears that you’re being taken seriously outside the Propeller-head set, Peter.

    http://planet3.org/2012/11/04/an-argument-in-defense-of-russ-georges-geoengineering-experiment/

  7. Kudos to Russ George for at least doing *something* while the rest of us sit around with our thumbs firmly inserted in our rectums, smug in the belief that our switching to CF light bulbs is all that needs to be done in order to save the world.

  8. I have to take exception to the assertion that the 9/11 suicide attackers were motivated primarily by religion. You just kind of threw it out there as a random kick against religion, and while I’m all in favor of kicking religion whenever possible, in this case it just doesn’t seem to hold up.

    Based on the research presented in Dying to Win, an analysis of all known suicide attacks in recorded history, suicide terrorism occurs almost exclusively in the context of people resisting a military superior, culturally distinct democracy occupying land that the terrorists view as their homeland. Religion comes heavily into play in that “culturally distinct” part, but only in terms of religious difference between the terrorists and the targets. For example, the single most prolific suicide terrorist organization to date, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is a secular organization, as are several organizations involved in suicide attacks against Israel.

    Though Al Qaeda is religious, their ability to recruit suicide operatives is more sensibly analyzed in terms of the ongoing US occupation of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, almost all Al Qaeda operatives come from Saudi Arabia, despite the late bin Laden’s claims to being a transnational force for Islam. The same analysis holds for all Islamic terrorist organizations and for almost all terrorist organizations in general: they may use the rhetoric of religion, but their actions show them to be excessively interested in fighting for the liberation of their particular homeland.

    The book goes into far more detail, on more facets of the issue, obviously, but the point is, the view you’re expressing on the causes of suicide terrorism are grossly uninformed, which are widespread largely because they play to the speakers biases, whether anti-Islamic or anti-religious, and because of the strong desire to greatly exaggerate the effect that expecting an afterlife has on somebody’s psychology out of a desire to see the terrorist as a coward rather than as somebody making a bold sacrifice for their people.

  9. but their actions show them to be excessively interested in fighting for the liberation of their particular homeland.

    Correction, I meant “exclusively,” not excessively. Considering the circumstances that prompt suicide terrorism, I find their methods fairly reasonable, all considered.

  10. in July the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, in collaboration with a US business called Planktos, seeded a hundred tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean off the islands of Haida Gwaii.

    On second thought, that is pretty evil. Yep, whatever else anyone else is doing, that is just not right.

  11. Hljóðlegur,

    I wonder if it wouldn’t seem as bad to most people if there was just a name for iron sulfate that didn’t make it sound like one of those evil chemicals, and instead like something natural.

  12. @Peter Watts: Sir, you have managed to once again perform your signature stylistic forte, which is to say, gone just a tiny bit farther than just way the heck beyond my education and IQ but you’ve done so in a way that makes me think about how things I probably do understand fit into it.

    I’m flashing back about 15 year or so to a really major fish-kill in the Chesapeake, which had to do with pfisteria piscicida, also known as the “Cell from Hell” (1997 Washington Post coverage and science backgrounder). That wasn’t something that anyone actually tried to produce, so far as I can possibly know, but the notion that someone might have deliberately taken a risk of reproducing that, well, it might be good science trying reproducibility in support of a hypothesis in which success equals horror… well, as you seem to be expressing, that’s just over the top and people ought to know better.

    As for Dead Zones, the ones in the Chesapeake keep shifting around, but some progress has been made mostly through ongoing legislation and outreach trying to get farmers and suburbanites to stop contributing to the Nitrogen Saturation problem. We keep getting really weird fluctuations in the “commercial biota”; for example, last year there was such an outrageous surplus of immature Blue Crab that you couldn’t hardly give it away. No mature ones to speak of, though, and I’ll be interested to see what happens next late-summer season. (The Chesapeake is the Sad Poster Child for how to foul up one of the world’s biggest and most-productive estuaries.)

    The thing is, to speak very broadly and in a less educated way, we’ve got a problem here with mad oscillations in a positive feedback loop. The mechanisms that should be promoting any sort of homeotropism, a metasystem seeking its own balance points in a natural-forces-driven sort of way, they’ve been so damaged by a century of industrial harvesting of the former bounty, the only thing that seems to have much effect is the sort of ham-handed “what were they thinking” projects as you pointed us to in your article. The dedicated Chesapeake Conservation Science community might (or might occasionally not) be more clue-ful than the folks dumping tons of iron sulphate into the sea, but even with the deepest knowledge and best intentions, half of what they’re doing amounts to “we’d love to have fish for dinner so let’s throw some dynamite over the port bow”. Some day they’ll probably think they’ve got the right ‘recipe’ and try to shock the bay back into balance… but they’ll be expecting Venus on the Half Shell and what they’ll get is the Bride of Frankenstein.

    Better the Chesapeake than the whole damn Ocean, I guess.

  13. Blank: Stupid question:

    Can you recommend any informational resources for those of us who *have* been too transfixed to look away from the ongoing train wreck of US electoral politics?

    Not stupid at all; most of the mainstream coverage I’ve seen has taken a pretty obvious editorial position, one way or the other.

    I’m not dumb enough to think that scientific journals are immune to bias, but this piece in Nature seems pretty even-handed, and the author seems to have actually researched the issue instead of reacting to press releases.

  14. Brycemeister:
    Another stupid question: did anyone do a study on what the iron sulphate might do? Or was it just “they eat this, let’s dump that.” My strong point aint ocean going biology.

    The post links to one peer-reviewed study that suggests they might be on to something.

    Lars:
    It appears that you’re being taken seriously outside the Propeller-head set, Peter.

    http://planet3.org/2012/11/04/an-argument-in-defense-of-russ-georges-geoengineering-experiment/

    I’ve been in touch with the guy. I think he’s also interested in running my “Climategate” rant from 2009 (although he has good reason for eschewing the use of that word).

    AstralRunner:
    I have to take exception to the assertion that the 9/11 suicide attackers were motivated primarily by religion. You just kind of threw it out there as a random kick against religion, and while I’m all in favor of kicking religion whenever possible, in this case it just doesn’t seem to hold up.

    Okay, fair call. I seem to remember similar data coming down the pike back in 2008. Sometimes I can’t resist the cheap shot — but a cheap shot is what it was.

  15. Mr Non-Entity:
    @Peter Watts: Sir, you have managed to once again perform your signature stylistic forte, which is to say, gone just a tiny bit farther than just way the heck beyond my education and IQ but you’ve done so in a way that makes me think about how things I probably do understand fit into it.

    You’re probably giving me way too much credit — I haven’t been a real scientist for 15 years now. From the sound of it you know more about this stuff than I do.

    We agree on one thing, though; Nature has, in a very real sense, already ended.

  16. @Peter Watts, who wrote in-part: We agree on one thing, though; Nature has, in a very real sense, already ended.

    Well… if you can find this little paper I wrote on “why futurism” (as a career choice) you might be interested to track down some cites referenced there. Now if I can get this blockquote feature to work, you’ll see that even the UN Water people seem to agree that Nature isn’t hardly natural anymore.

    Water resources are renewable (except some groundwaters),with huge differences
    in availability in different parts of the world and wide variations in seasonal and
    annual precipitation in many places. Precipitation is the main source of water for
    all human uses and for ecosystems. This precipitation is taken up by plants and soils,
    evaporates into the atmosphere via evapotranspiration,and runs off to the sea via rivers,
    and to lakes and wetlands. The water of evapotranspiration supports forests,
    rain-fed cultivated and grazing lands, and ecosystems. We withdraw 8 percent
    of the total annual renewable freshwater, and appropriate 26 percent of
    annual evapotranspiration and 54 percent of accessible runoff.
    Humankind’s control of runoff is now global and we are significant players
    in the hydrological cycle. Per capita use is increasing (with better lifestyles) and
    population is growing. Thus the percentage of appropriated water is increasing.
    Together with spatial and temporal variations in available water, the consequence
    is that water for all our uses is becoming scarce and leading to a water crisis
    (UNWWAP , pp. 8-9). [UNWWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme) (2003) Water for people, water for life: Executive summary. Retrieved Jun 23, 2003 from http://www.unesco.org/water/wwap/wwdr/ex_summary/ex_summary_en.pdf

    That bit about “[h]umankind’s control of runoff is now global and we are significant players
    in the hydrological cycle” certainly gave me pause, and even though I started writing that paper (for University of Phoenix returning student, please stop giggling thanks) with a certain amount of trepidation and gloom, it only got worse as I kept researching and writing. If anyone ever suspected that both of us might be on the same page of text about “politicians would still be screwing the pooch even if they were good people, because frankly they don’t know any better”, this ought to confirm it.

    I wouldn’t want to ignite yet-another firestorm of controversy by suggesting that the UN Water folks are the best scientists ever and are thus incapable of error and their statements ought to be considered doctrine, but I will go so far as to suggest that even with all of the folks firing political shots across their bow, so to speak, they felt a need to state in their very cautious bureaucratic way that we might start considering that it’s about time to start freaking out. And that was about 10 years ago.

    Add to this an article in the Washington Post which says Warmer still: Extreme climate predictions appear most accurate, report says (Vastag, Brian. The Washington Post. November 8 2012). This is badly linked to point to “Future warming likely to be on high side of climate projections, analysis finds”, an uncredited press staff blurb pointing to Science 9 November 2012, Vol. 338, #6108. Paywalls may be involved. ;)

    I suppose I should say that you may not be a scientist now but you have been a scientist, and I am just a voracious fan of SF and have been for very many years. You probably still have a tendency to look at quite a lot of data before you make up your mind, and I have a tendency to look at the reputations of people doing reporting (or speculation on scientific reporting) and I hate to say that as pessimistic about the future as you might be, unlike a lot of folks who are seeing extremely disheartening trends in data and analysis yet are constrained to report in a very even and almost non-committal tone, you at least are willing to express that sense of outrage which I am sure many scientists feel behind the mask of their steady and level dispassionate presentation and summaries. I do hope you can keep doing that “deeply informed and deeply outraged thing… a lot of the rest of us who’ve been watching the madness and stupidity unfold from a vantage outside of anything resembling academia, we’re almost gone numb to near the point of catatonia. Sort of at the point of “I’d run around screaming if only I could find the energy” and I’m sure I’m not the only person fallen into that state.

    Yet, please take this as a serious compliment, a lot of the stuff that you write, whether it’s SF or this reporting/relating in the Con and blog spaces, makes me want to shake off the inertia and do something. Like write strongly-worded letters to the editor etc. ;) Now that elections are (thank the invisible sky fairies!) over, perhaps we can hold the politicians’ feet to the fire, as it were, and it’s great to have lots of science to throw at them and you do an incredible job here of finding the relevant stuff. Okay, I am gushing, but Kudos, sir. For keeping alive the outrage.

  17. [...] 2012/11/04: Rifters: Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation [...]

  18. AstralRunner: in July the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, in collaboration with a US business called Planktos, seeded a hundred tonnes of squishy bunnyhug into the ocean off the islands of Haida Gwaii.

    Hm. I see your point, AstralRunner.

  19. Just a couple comments from a resident of the city of Victoria, where sewage is (yes) pumped out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca –
    -Great map you linked to in that sentence, showing the dead zones in the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern Seaboard. But it shows a dead zone at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and I gotta disagree. You’re a marine biologist — you know this area aint a dead zone. It’s an area profoundly affected by the over-population of Victoria, Vancouver, and the Seattle metropolis, but it aint a dead zone.
    -I interviewed Dr Andrew Weaver (oceanographer at UVic) and according to him, the primary and limited secondary treatment of sewage in Victoria is sufficient because the city has kicked ass in controlling industrial pollution that is routinely mixed into sewage in other cities. What gets pumped into the strait has a surprisingly small amount of heavy metals and other extremely vile contaminants — but yeah, it’s a big whack of organic waste. He’d like a longer pipe to release the sewage closer to the open Pacific… but while he’s wishing, he agreed with me that the population of big cities really really has to drop.

  20. It looks like at least one expert on iron-fertilized blooms shares your opinion about geoengineering, Victor Smetacek. This guy is a big gun, a veteran researcher on phytoplankton blooms and all their subtleties.
    http://www.livescience.com/24117-iron-fertilization-canada-controversy.html

    However, it is clear that nobody knows how iron fertilization affects plankton bloom composition and nobody wants the responsibility of triggering any harmful algae blooms or other nasties as byproducts, except perhaps George Russ.
    http://www.nature.com/news/dumping-iron-at-sea-does-sink-carbon-1.11028

  21. Paula: But it shows a dead zone at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and I gotta disagree. You’re a marine biologist — you know this area aint a dead zone. It’s an area profoundly affected by the over-population of Victoria, Vancouver, and the Seattle metropolis, but it aint a dead zone.

    Ah, good call. Race Rocks is right in there too.

    I get the sense that the diameter of the circle is deliberately exaggerated to diagrammatically represent the relative size of the zones, not their actual extent in lats and longs; if you look at the legend, the disk size for a “10K” dead zone is way bigger than 10K on the global map. Which means that that JdF zone is probably centered on Hood Canal or something, and doesn’t really reach as far as a superficial reading would suggest.

    I didn’t even notice that until you called me on it, though, so I’m hardly one to talk about superficial readings.

  22. [...] meanwhile, argues in “Geoengineering and the Evils of Conservation” that geoengineering, or some form of managed human intervention in the environment, is going to be [...]