The First of the Geohackers

GeohackingLast October, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation dumped an estimated one hundred tonnes of iron sulphate into international waters off the coast of British Columbia. The stated goal of the project was to reinvigorate the region’s ailing salmon fishing industry: the algal bloom resulting from the influx of iron would lead to an explosion in the local population of salmon, who feed on phytoplankton. The action outraged oceanologists, who feared that the nutrient drawdown caused by the sudden algae growth could severely damage the marine ecosystem.

Ocean seeding is one geoengineering project proposed to fight global warming–the rapid growth and death of algae blooms would sequester carbon under the ocean. Such large-scale projects are considered necessary by some scientists to combat rising global temperatures. But many of these geoengineering projects are unstudied and could have terrifying side effects. Geoengineering is highly controversial, and the scientific community generally agrees that large-scale geoengineering projects should only be considered after careful scientific study and regulation.

But lack of approval from the scientific community did not deter Russ George, the Californian entrepreneur behind the Haida Salmon Restoration experiment. Without any significant scientific backing, and with minimal governmental approval, his corporation undertook the largest single geoengineering project to date.

And they’re planning to do it again.

George has single-handedly made apparent the fascinating complexity surrounding geoengineering. No one seems to know if his actions were actually illegal – the experiment took place in international waters, with the backing of a local tribal village. If his actions constitute polluting – which remains unclear – whose jurisdiction does it fall under? The result is that there have been no legal consequences for George. He faces nothing other than a general sense of outrage from the international community.

George’s autobiography reads like the resume of a villain in a William Gibson novel. His associates range from cold fusion scientists to 9/11 Truthers and his business history is marred with lies and misinformation. His early start-up companies may have been a shell for a number of shady business practices.

The Haida Salmon experiment was not George’s first foray into ocean seeding. In 2007, George’s company Planktos sent the Weatherbird II on a much-publicized mission to conduct a massive-scale iron seeding project. The Weatherbird II spent several months at sea, sailing from port to port seeking sources of powdered iron ore. Environmentalists rallied against the Weatherbird voyage, and after being turned away by port authorities from Bermuda to the Canary Islands, Planktos ended its operations due to a lack of funding. The ill-fated Weatherbird faced opposition on every leg of its voyage, including a high-seas confrontation with a vessel under the command of a Greenpeace splinter group. Furthermore, the Planktos experiment appears to have been a scheme to profit off of investors and sell carbon offset credits to European companies looking to avoid paying carbon taxes. (Planktos’ advertisements read like a bad internet scam.)

Despite the disaster surrounding Planktos, George managed to convince the Old Masset Village Council, representing one of Canada’s First Nations, to invest $2.5 million in a new iron seeding project: Haida Salmon Restoration. Unsurprisingly, this new venture has also been plagued with controversy. Since its 2012 iron dump, Haida Salmon offices were raided by Canadian environmental protection officers and Russ George was subsequently fired from the company. Despite the controversy and a noticeable lack of published results, Haida Salmon appears to intend to proceed with another iron seeding attempt.

The exploits of Russ George and the Haida Salmon Restoration project illustrate the complex issues surrounding geoengineering: it falls in a shadowy gray area between fringe science, public policy, and environmental interests. With the mixed and uncertain response to George’s projects, it’s clear there is no real way to stop even a single determined geohacker. What if some ambitious individual finds a way to profit, for example, off of global cooling, and releases tonnes of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere? The consequences of such rogue geohacking could be far more devastating than the effects of global warming.

In an era of government deadlock, economic disaster, and international tensions, the likelihood of a fast, large-scale, and comprehensive response to climate change seems remote. With the consequences of inaction becoming ever more apparent, Russ George’s proactive approach has a strange kind of appeal. Though needing rigorous study, some geoengineering techniques might prove to be highly effective and cheap to implement. If governmental organizations can’t respond quickly enough to the threats of climate change, will ordinary people start taking such actions? If so, what can we do to make sure such actions are taken as responsibly as possible?

I have no answers, but I suspect that the era of geohacking has only just begun.

Image courtesy of Micah Temple, used under CC BY 2.0 license. Thanks Micah!

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