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Environmental Concerns

Mark Mattox
January 16, 2009

After international outcry from governments and envrionmental groups, Germany has postponed an experiment in the South Atlantic which could potentially pull massive amounts of carbon out of the air.

Research vessel Polarstern
The Polarstern is Germany's most famous research vesselImage: picture-alliance / dpa

A German research vessel charged with carrying out an experiment involving the dumping of six tons of iron sulfate into the ocean off the coast of Antarctica has been ordered to halt the test until further assessments can be conducted.

The geo-engineering scheme is being conducted by a joint German-Indian research team on board the Polarstern, a ship owned by the Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Oceanic Research (AWI) in the north-western German city of Bremerhaven.

Environmental groups around the globe have severely criticized the project, which was meant to cause an algae bloom designed to soak up harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Putting on the brakes

The Alfred-Wegener-Institue in Bremerhaven
The Alfred-Wegener-Institute owns the ship and is Germany's leading oceanic research bodyImage: Gerrit Sahling/Alfred-Wegener-Institut

Ulrich Bathmann, a researcher at AWI and the person responsible for running the experiment from land, confirmed that the ship will no longer be dumping its cargo into the sea after German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for more tests to determine the safety of the project.

“The Ministry of Education and Research has asked us to continue with the preparation of the experiment, but to not actually start doing the fertilization before we have the positive reviews on the table,” he added.

Bathmann says the ship will still need another three to four days to reach the location and that an additional six days will be spent “investigating the vicinity” to determine the perfect place to conduct the experiment.

Environmental groups unconvinced

According to Bathmann, AWI agrees that “a proper environmental assessment needs to be conducted prior to the experiment.” Environmental groups, however, aren't as convinced.

Jim Thomas with the international civil society organization ETC Group, based in Ottawa, Canada, says conducting an assessment under such time pressure is not an effective measure of whether or not the experiment can be carried out safely.

“I can't see how the experimenters on board a ship steaming towards the Scotia Sea can do a rational, reasoned, careful analysis,” Thomas added.

Ocean fertilization suspended

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel
Gabriel oversaw the implementation of the moratorium last MayImage: AP

The ETC Group and other environmental organizations cite the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which met in Bonn last May and instated a moratorium on ocean fertilization until further research had been done.

Thomas points out that not only are both Germany and India signatories to the convention, but that Sigmar Gabriel personally brokered the moratorium agreement.

“This has been rushed too quickly, it's not being done in the proper order and at the moment it's undermining Germany's image in the world in terms of its leadership on environmental issues,” said Thomas

Planning for the experiment began in 2005, well before the moratorium was put into place, and was officially signed into agreement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October 2007.

The iron-sowing expedition, named LOHAFEX, comprises 48 scientists, 30 of them from India's National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). While the ship is being provided by the Germans, much of the financing was contributed by New Delhi.

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