The Haida Gwaii iron-dump disaster


In July 2012, Russ George, aided by financial collaboration with the village of Old Massett, dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean, 300 kilometres west of the islands of Haida Gwaii. George assured locals that his scheme would result in the robust return of dwindling local salmon populations.

Iron fertilization projects have been experimented with on small scales by governments around the world and are mainly undertaken in high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll regions (HNLC). Adding iron to these regions stimulates plankton growth, which absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide. When plankton dies, the carbon dioxide sequestered sinks with it to rest, hopefully indefinitely, upon the farthest reaches of the ocean floor.

George’s motivation was not only to rejuvenate salmon stocks, but also to manufacture carbon credits for monetary gain. However, many scientists say iron fertilization is dangerous and that it is doubtful this process would sequester enough carbon from the atmosphere to make any sort of impact on global warming. There is also little to no scientific evidence that iron fertilization may have any positive effect on salmon stocks. Ocean fertilization in agriculture run-off areas has been known to cause widespread depletion of dissolved oxygen and create areas that are almost hypoxic (devoid of oxygen), which support little to no conventional marine life.

Despite the possible dangers to the marine ecosystem and the unpredictable effects of iron fertilization, George went through with his project. The experiment took place allegedly with the knowledge of government officials, who did not appear to do anything to stop it. There is much controversy over who is actually responsible for the massive iron dump, and a lot of shock over the massive size of the release — over 100 times bigger than any previous.

John Disney of the Old Massett village council assured the public that no illegal action was committed related to this project and no international or Canadian laws were violated during the experiment. But what actual laws are in place against such internationally risky behaviour? Why was George allowed to conduct his experiment, and why were there no repercussions for his actions?

International regulations and sanctions are weak or non-existent regarding geoengineering schemes. Organizations such as UNESCO and the UN, whose mandate is to protect global interests, are far behind the science and technology of geoengineering in their policies. People like George are free to manipulate others for monetary gain and experiment on large scales without consequences. Although there are some regulations aimed to protect against experiments such as these in the Environmental Protection Act, the Canadian government has yet to prosecute George in an effective manner — plus, Disney says the experiment took place outside the 200-mile Canadian territorial boundary, which would limit the government’s ability to litigate.

The bottom line is that experiments of this size and scale should absolutely not be able to transpire in our oceans and our world. Governments and international bodies need to create and enforce legitimate laws and penalties for such violations, protecting our environment against further geoengineering schemes.