Fertilizing the Ocean to Trap CO2

by Emil Morhardt

One of the ways scientists have hoped to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere is by adding nutrients to the ocean that are limiting the growth of photosynthetic phytoplankton. The idea is that with the proper nutrients (iron being the main one experimented with so far) the plankton would capture CO2 photosynthetically, convert it to biomass, die, then sink to the ocean floor, “exporting” the new carbon in their bodies to a place where it couldn’t have any effect on global warming. There are a number of posts in this blog dealing with those experiments under the category “Ocean Fertilization”; they haven’t worked very well because, among other things, instead of sinking to seafloor, the phytoplankton get eaten by zooplankton which metabolically convert them back into energy and CO2 which can then diffuse back to the atmosphere, or at least contribute to ocean acidification.

A fascinating paper just published in Science, examines the nutrients limiting the growth of the photosynthetic marine cyanobacterium, Prochlorococcus, in a much more interesting and comprehensive way than previously possible, and although it doesn’t directly speak to the feasibility of fertilizing the ocean to trap CO2 (sorry about the somewhat misleading title to this post) it greatly increases the potential sophistication with which such a goal could be pursued. Continue reading