Possible Negative Implications of Ocean Urea Fertilization

Since the industrial revolution, there has been an ever-increasing concentration of CO2in the atmosphere contributing to global climate change.  Ocean fertilization<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> is one proposed method of carbon capture and storage<!–[if supportFields]> XE “carbon capture and storage (CCS)”<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>; it is the use of fertilizers to stimulating the growth of phytoplankton<!–[if supportFields]> XE “phytoplankton” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> species that take up CO2 in their growth.  One fertilizer<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilizer” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> being proposed is urea, a nitrogen<!–[if supportFields]> XE “nitrogen” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> rich organic compound.  Unlike nitrogen fertilization, research of the effectiveness of urea as an ocean fertilizer is only being conducted by one laboratory at the University of Sydney, which has connections with Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC)<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC)” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, a company that has the patent on the procedure.  The environmental and social aspects of this procedure must be fully examined to determine if it a safe and effective solution for carbon sequestration<!–[if supportFields]> XE “carbon sequestration” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> before it is implemented on a large scale.  Mayo-Ramsay (2010) discusses the process of urea fertilization, and its ability to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon and stimulate fisheries.  She also examines its possible effects on the Sulu Sea, the leading site being considered. —Anna Fiastro
Mayo-Ramsay, J., 2010. Environmental, legal and social implications of ocean urea fertilization<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>: Sulu sea example. Marine Policy. 34, 831835.

Ocean urea fertilization<!–[if supportFields]>XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> utilizes a nutrient solution produced by mixing urea with other limiting nutrients.  This nutrient solution is then put in the ocean where it increases the abundance of phytoplankton<!–[if supportFields]>XE “phytoplankton” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, and the resultant uptake of carbon from the atmosphere.  This stimulation at the lowest trophic<!–[if supportFields]>XE “trophic”<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> level is thought to trickle up the food chain and increase marine productivity of larger fish.  The two benefits that are outlined are the sequestration<!–[if supportFields]>XE “sequestration” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> of carbon and the increase in fish populations, which could help in the face of a global food shortage. 
Professor Ian Jones is the head of the Ocean Technology Group at the University of Sydney, the only laboratory conducting research on urea fertilization<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.  He also has interests in the Ocean Nourishment Corporation, an Australian commercial organization that has patented its urea fertilization technology.  While the company claims to have conducted research on its technique and possible implications, no peer reviewed scientific articles have been published.  The company did not consult the local governments or communities that would be affected by this experimentation.
Other scientific discussions and studies being conducted by independent groups have identified various possible dangers related to ocean fertilization<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.  Added fertilizer<!–[if supportFields]>XE “fertilizer” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> can lead to the creation of hypoxic zones (areas void of oxygen) as well as the release of nitrous oxide<!–[if supportFields]> XE “nitrous oxide (N2O)” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> (N2O).  This increase in nutrients can lead to an imbalance in the different species of phytoplankton<!–[if supportFields]> XE “phytoplankton” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> and ecosystem composition.  There is also a question of whether or not such fertilization actually leads to carbon sequestration<!–[if supportFields]> XE “carbon sequestration” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.  While the phytoplankton blooms do take up CO2, the carbon must not be released back into the atmosphere in order for it to be an effective solution for climate change.  In this case, the dead material constructed from the carbon must sink to the bottom of the ocean, but evidence shows that the phytoplankton stay on or near the surface creating a scum. 
The proposed urea fertilization<!–[if supportFields]>XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> plant would pump urea into the Sulu Sea southeast of Asia.  This site was selected because it is a fairly enclosed body of water that lacks nutrients but has sufficient phosphorous.  While this might seem like a good location, the limited circulation can intensify the possibility of anoxic conditions with increased nutrients. 
The other proposed benefit of the program is increased marine productivity, which would supposedly stimulate the local fisheries.  Currently there is a vibrant aquaculture<!–[if supportFields]> XE “aquaculture” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> industry in the region and long-term production of fish through this method has not been proven.  Even if there were increased productivity, the management of this fishery would become very complicated.  The proposed site in the Sulu Sea is bordered by a number of States.  The Ocean Nourishment Corporation has proposed a specific fishing license that would be necessary to fish in the waters affected by their plant, but would be nearly impossible to determine which fish were wild and which were grown under the influence of the fertilization<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fertilization” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> conditions.  Such a license would also be detrimental to the local fisher<!–[if supportFields]> XE “fisher” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>-people who rely on the fish for their survival, presenting a serious legal barrier to the viability and completion of this project.

Another legal concern is the distribution of the carbon credits obtained through the carbon sequestration<!–[if supportFields]> XE “carbon sequestration” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.  Currently the International Organization for Standardization is coordinating a system to validate and verify greenhouse gas accounting.  The benefits of the program would need to be quantified and distributed among the States and organizations participating in the project, but the number of States involved makes this process difficult to agree upon, implement, and regulate. 

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