96& %s; In The Shade
Local scientists want to use the ocean to get rid of greenhouse gases.
Thursday, August 16, 2001
Guardian of Small Things: Biologist Jim Barry worries about the effects of carbon sequestration on deep sea creatures, which he says are highly susceptible to changes in their environments.In the intertidal zone of the Monterey Peninsula coastline, where twice a day the tide recedes to expose jagged rocks and shallow pools, a new population of animals is making a home. When a young graduate student at Hopkins Marine Station named Willis Hewatt took an inventory of the invertebrates living just outside the lab''s back door 70 years ago, no spotted unicorn snails, keyhole limpets or southern anemones were found clinging to the granite. But by 1995, when Hopkins scholars Jim Barry, Chuck Baxter, Rafe Sagarin and Sarah Gilman surveyed the same area, the newcomers had settled in, having journeyed from their former home in the warmer waters of southern California.
That their arrival displaced native animals was cause enough for concern. But what really made the local scientific community sit up and take notice was that the climate of the Monterey Bay area, once too cold for these sensitive animals, now clearly was not. The effects of global warming, long dreaded and guessed at, had materialized abruptly.
This proof of rising worldwide temperatures hardly came as a surprise. The first warning came in 1896, when the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted that carbon dioxide (CO2) being belched into the atmosphere from fossil-fuel-burning factories could cause global climate change.
Toward the end of the 20th century, Arrhenius'' dramatic forecast was proven correct, although there are still a handful of industry-paid scientists--and one world leader--who dispute this.
It is irrefutable that the Earth''s temperature has risen 1 degree Fahrenheit since the pre-Industrial Revolution date of 1860. It is equally certain that this heating trend is the result of surplus greenhouse gases--CO2 comprising 55 percent of them --blanketing the Earth.
One degree does not sound like much. And the changes so far have been less than dramatic, aside from some migrating species. But as it turns out, the warming trend is exponential (see sidebar, pg 18). It''s taken 100 years for Earth''s temperature to rise 1 degree, but scientists predict that at this rate it will rise another 4 degrees by 2050 and 6 degrees beyond that by 2100.
Again, even 10 degrees sounds like no big deal. But consider that 10,000 years ago, the Earth''s average temperature was only 10 degrees cooler than it is today, during the epoch we refer to as the Ice Age.
The catastrophic results of a 10-degree temperature increase are inconceivably horrifying. Already, says Hopkins researcher Lars Tomanek, butterflies and birds are altering their migration patterns, and mountain plant zones are shifting to higher elevations--"and that''s just after 1 degree Fahrenheit," he says.
In the future, it appears that all hell will break loose. A report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a bleak portrait of the future based on the consensus of 500 scientists. As Greg Smestad, professor of environmental policy at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, observes, "To get 500 scientists to agree on anything is no small feat," so IPCC''s report is widely hailed as predictive.
Though estimates of how much the sea-level will rise in the next century vary--some say three feet, others say more like 28 feet--the panel''s scientists agree on the range of impacts. The Netherlands, Malaysia, Bangladesh and many more low-lying countries and island nations will shrink or disappear altogether. Millions will be displaced, wreaking havoc on the infrastructures of surviving nations.
The local forecast is also grim. Here, the shoreline will advance, obliterating coastal communities and rendering present-day arguments about lavish beach hotels moot.
If the sea rose 20 feet, the new shoreline in Monterey would be at South Fremont.
Smestad explains that, as the atmosphere tries to rid itself of surplus water, tropical storms and hurricanes will buffet coastal cities the world over with increasing intensity. Some regions (no one knows which) will flood habitually; others will lose water reserves to baking summers and decreased spring flows.
Here and throughout the Earth''s temperate regions, warmer climates will invite mosquitoes and other disease carriers into fresh habitats, bringing with them the sickness and fever of malaria, Lyme disease and cholera. Crop zones will shift, plant and animal species will migrate toward the poles or, without time and options, die.
And if that''s not enough to foster sleepless nights, the United Nations Environment Program figures that by 2050, the world''s gross national product will be taking a $300 billion hit each year due to deaths, crop losses and meteorological disasters.
These are the reasons that in late July, 178 nations--the U.S. not among them--agreed at a meeting in Bonn, Germany on a set of terms to implement the Kyoto Protocol. That 1997 proposal calls for a return by 2012 to greenhouse emissions levels that are 5 percent lower than those of 1990--a reduction that would merely stabilize the greenhouse effect, not lessen it. The United States'' cooperation is crucial; we produce 6.6 tons of greenhouse gases per capita each year.
The delegates at Bonn booed the US spokeswoman when she insisted that President Bush, despite his abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol, is committed to fighting climate change.
The delegates had every right to mock the US. But even though our benighted chief executive insists CO2 isn''t a pollutant, US scientists are researching ways to limit the amount of CO2 making its way into the atmosphere. Some of the most compelling research is being done here in Moss Landing.
One summer day in 1998, a group of chemists, engineers and crewmembers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute lugged their gear, some warm clothes and a few tanks of industrial-grade CO2 aboard the Western Flyer. Out they motored in the institute''s massive research vessel to the place they now jokingly call CO2 West, a point about 80 nautical miles from MBARI''s sleek new headquarters in Moss Landing, and 12,000 feet above a flat shelf of sea floor near the Monterey Canyon.
At the destination, the robotic submarine, or remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Tiburon''s tool sled was outfitted with a tank of CO2, pH sensors and some beakers. In the "moonbay" between the Western Flyer''s twin hulls, a crane secured Tiburon, the bay''s floor dropped open, and the ROV was lowered into the water, its bright yellow fiber-optic umbilical cord spooling out of the mother ship. On the bridge of the Western Flyer, a pilot guided the ROV''s descent, aided by a wide-angle camera affixed to the three-and-a-half-ton vehicle''s body.
Once Tiburon was resting on the sea floor, a second pilot maneuvering the ROV''s mechanical arm set the beakers on the mucky sea floor and positioned the CO2 dispensing line above them. While Tiburon cranked specially engineered valves that slowly released liquid CO2 into the beakers, the chemists huddled around a monitor two miles above to see what would happen next. The first in-situ deep-sea carbon sequestration experiment was underway.
"Carbon sequestration"--a newfangled effort to get carbon out of the atmosphere--involves the capture and storage of CO2 in various places: old coal seams, abandoned oil fields, porous rock, and now the ocean. Since CO2 exists naturally underground (it blows out of coal seams and oil fields during mining and drilling), geologists believe it can be securely put back without major problems.
In the case of ocean sequestration, scientists believe that piping liquid CO2 into ocean waters two miles down can work because of the ocean''s "buffering" ability--its way of chemically absorbing CO2.
This buffering occurs constantly. The ocean''s surface is always meeting CO2 at the border of air and sea and absorbing it. In this manner, the ocean eventually will absorb about 85 percent of the CO2 in the atmosphere, turning it into harmless bicarbonate.
The ocean is so big, and already contains so much absorbed CO2 compared to what''s available in the rest of the world''s untapped fossil fuel reserves and in the atmosphere, that scientists believe, in theory at least, that it could absorb almost all the CO2 that exists on Earth.
Chemical Brother: Ed Peltzer, chemist and senior MBARI researcher, insists carbon sequestration research is not a foregone conclusion but subject to experimental findings, like any other project.
"It''s just that the absorption takes place very slowly, over hundreds of years," explains Ed Peltzer, a chemist who works on the MBARI sequestration project. "What''s being proposed is to short-circuit the natural process."
In the predicted ocean sequestration scenario, parts of the ocean floor would play host to lakes of frozen, mostly stable, slowly dissolving CO2. On that maiden deep-sea expedition three years ago, everyone on the ship saw the show that complicated things.
Because of experiments done at shallower depths, the scientists expected the CO2 to form an ice-like crust made of a substance called clathrate hydrate. They also hypothesized that the hydrate-covered CO2 would more or less sit there dissolving very slowly, all but hermetically sealed inside its icy crust.
Within an hour, the CO2 that had half-filled a four-liter beaker reacted with the 35-degree sea water and formed hydrate. Fine. What the scientists didn''t expect was the hydrate''s expansion, and the way it sank to the bottom of the beaker, causing the contents to overflow. They gaped at their video screens in astonishment as blobs of liquid CO2, rapidly forming thin hydrate skins of their own, spilled over the beaker''s edge and bounced away across the chilly sea floor. They scratched their heads as one of the CO2 balls rolled close to a "worm tube," a little stick-like projection rising a few inches from the sea floor, then appeared to roll through it and emerge intact on the other side.
"It was like in Terminator 2, that one character that was sort of like liquid metal," exclaims the normally soft-spoken Peltzer. "We looked at each other and said, ''Did that really happen?''"
Carbon dioxide could clearly perform some interesting feats on the ocean floor, but at that moment, "lie quietly" didn''t seem to be one of them.
The idea of storing carbon in the ocean first surfaced in 1977 when an Italian scientist named Marchetti proposed it in the first volume of the journal Climate Change. But it was MBARI senior scientist Peter Brewer who had the idea to use Tiburon''s deep-diving capacity to test the theory in real-world conditions rather than in the laboratory.
"You could do it in the manned submersibles," Peltzer says doubtfully, "but the idea of sending people down with a tank of CO2 [an explosive gas] beside them has made people think twice about it." MBARI''s $8 million ROV took the potential fatalities out of the equation, and Brewer seized the opportunity to get the institute''s engineers working on attachments and programs to assist in the experiments.
The challenge of solving the global warming crisis was admittedly a long shot, and a political gamble as well. But MBARI''s accomplished engineering team and its independent funding--the David and Lucile Packard Foundation bankrolls the institute--have enabled this project to see daylight.
"In fact," Peltzer says, "David Packard set up MBARI for us to take some risks--not so much dangerous experiments as experiments that have little chance of succeeding. Although when they do, it''s the great leap forward."
So far MBARI has spent close to $1 million on sequestration research, and will likely spend much more; both Western Flyer and Point Lobos, the institute''s other research vessel, cost about $20,000 a day to operate.
To date the team at MBARI has conducted several tests at middle depths and some in the deep sea to observe how CO2 behaves in various environments. It''s tricky stuff. For one thing, 1,200 feet from the surface it turns from a gas to a liquid. In depths shallower than about 8,000 feet it''s less dense than sea water and rises, quickly dissolving along the way. At about 9,000 feet, however, the pressure compresses it and it becomes denser than sea water and sinks, there to--well, it''s hard to say what it does. So far it''s done something different every time the team has tested it.
"We did another experiment at 3,000 meters [about 10,000 feet] and it just sat there as big globs of CO2," says Peltzer. "It didn''t rapidly form the hydrate. It didn''t rapidly dissolve, either." Then he points to a hollow plastic ring about two feet across and four inches deep. "This last time at 3,600 meters we put the hoop out, like that one. The hydrate formed inside the sediment [on the ocean floor within the hoop] and formed a big frost heave."
Peltzer greets these perplexing developments with equanimity. "Obviously we still have lots to learn about the behavior of CO2 in the deep ocean before we can say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing to do," he says. In the meantime, he allows, smiling a little slyly, "We''re glad we have it on video, because you could never explain it to someone."
The learning process is painfully slow. Since the research vessels are shared by all departments, the sequestration team has to wait its turn to do its experiments. It takes time to digest the information gleaned from each test, and to refine the mechanics of manipulating equipment remotely.
One upcoming goal is to procure contaminated CO2 for future tests. Right now Peltzer picks up CO2 used for refrigeration in local packing plants from a source in Watsonville. It''s 97 or 98 percent pure--too pure to simulate the stuff that would be piped out of power plants and into the ocean if sequestration were to be done on a large scale.
Figuring out how to capture CO2 in order to sequester it is a big piece of the puzzle. Unless someone learns how to vacuum it out of the atmosphere or suck it out of cars'' tailpipes, power plant emissions (the source of about one-third of the world''s CO2 pollution) will be tapped, and the gas salvaged from their smokestacks will surely be contaminated by sulfates and water vapor.
Only one power plant Peltzer knows of can separate CO2 from other byproducts, and he''d like to get his hands on its gas. At Dakota Gasification''s plant in Beulah, North Dakota, 18,000 tons of coal are cooked daily to produce natural gas. A noxious "gas liquor" results, which is then "washed" in very cold methanol that binds to CO2 and the other materials in the soup. Through mysterious chemical means, the methanol is then backed out and recycled, leaving isolated, 94 percent pure CO2. The entrepreneurs at Dakota Gasification compress the catch into a liquid and pipe it for a price to an oil field in Saskatchewan, where it is used to help Pan Canadian Resources, Inc. rinse the last drops of crude oil from its Paleozoic bed.
Dakota Gasification spokesman Daryl Hill may or may not recognize the irony in the fact that CO2 sequestration''s first application assists in fossil-fuel production, thus creating more atmospheric CO2. In any case, he plays it straight.
"You could view CO2 sequestration as an added purpose," he explains, "but the primary purpose was to extract more oil out of its field. Of course it generates a new revenue stream for our plant, too."
That is one reason why gas and oil companies are investing in their own research of CO2 isolation, and why President Bush actually supports carbon sequestration research, and why the Department of Energy, despite slashing the budget for clean fuels research down to nothing, has requested funding for CO2 capture and sequestration efforts here and abroad to the tune of $60 million.
Coming experiments by the MBARI team will start to address a new environmental question: Buffering or no buffering, how will the ocean respond to having an acid mainlined into its gut?
When CO2 mixes with sea water, it creates a compound that releases hydrogen ions--the definition of acidity. With increased acidity, says MBARI biologist Jim Barry, comes stress on marine animals; an acidic environment means acid in the critters'' bodies. Barry, one of the Hopkins scientists who discovered the formerly southern species in Monterey Bay, notes that much of what biologists know about animals and acidity comes from the study of human physiology.
"We''ve all felt lactic buildup in our muscles when we exercise," he says. "An animal either has to tolerate a big change in acidity or regulate it. That regulation comes at a cost."
Acid buildup in tissue demands oxygen. That''s why we pant when we run--because less oxygen is available for respiration. "So it''s as if [they] could only take half a breath," says Barry--a problem for animals that need to chase prey or escape predators. If the metabolic stress of day-to-day living is bad enough, the creatures won''t reproduce. At the far end of that road lies localized extinction.
Barry worries that CO2, even before it starts changing acidity levels in the water, will have the same narcotic effect on marine life as it does on humans, putting animals into a state of "suspended animation" or even killing them. There is some evidence that deep-sea animals are more susceptible to changes of all kinds than their shallow-water counterparts.
"It''s a very stable environment down there," he says. "They may have lost the ability to cope with acidic variability. They''re also energy-limited--there''s not as much food."
In June, Barry accompanied Brewer and Peltzer on an outing to CO2 West. This time, along with pouring CO2 into hoops onto the ocean floor, Tiburon''s mechanical arm cast about for some abundant, easy-to-catch sea cucumbers and sea urchins, plucked them off the sea floor and put them in cages at various distances from the CO2. They were left there for six weeks.
Those right next to the chemical, where pH sensors reported a hundred-fold increase in acidity, died. Those caged three feet away or so survived.
In addition, the crew collected core samples of the sea floor before and after the experiments. A few of them decorate the bookshelves in Ed Peltzer''s office--jars of goopy green clay that could probably pass for expensive facial mud if put in small enough pots. The mud contains bacteria and microbes that Barry''s preparing to analyze this week.
Future experiments will involve animals from throughout the phylogenetic strata: mollusks, echinoderms, crustaceans, fishes. Because sequestration may involve depositing CO2 at mid-level, where schools of fish would likely run into plumes of it, Barry also wants to test those animals, though they''re harder to catch and observe.
Barry, an animated guy with graying temples and a disconcerting way of speaking in complete paragraphs, has blatant misgivings about the sequestration project. "Is it a good thing?" he asks rhetorically. "Clearly it is not. I cannot imagine how it''s going to be a good thing.
"But good is a relative thing. Compared to all the other things that can happen--polar amplification, changes in agricultural land distribution and forests--all these things that we''re poised to experience at least in our children''s lifetimes..."
At this point one might think Barry would finish his assessment by saying that, compared to all these disasters, sequestration is the lesser evil. But he doesn''t. Instead, he says, "I think it''s difficult to compare the gains in one area to the costs in terms of deep sea animals."
Wildlands conservationists get bear cubs and fawns as props to help rally public opinion, other marine biologists dolphins and whales. But as a benthic, or deep sea, biologist, Barry is forced to go to bat for animals desperately lacking charisma. Predatory tunicates, for example, look like hideous sock puppets--big carnivorous open mouths perched on long white stems. Hagfish and other deep-sea fishes bristle with nightmarish teeth that angle every which way.
It''s no wonder, then, that Barry worries that terrestrial chauvinists will gladly sacrifice the humble tunicate and the hapless hagfish for the chance--the miraculous opportunity, really--to wash our sins away.
When it''s suggested to Peltzer that sequestration appears to be the latest and greatest version of dumping what we don''t like in a place where we won''t have to see it, he drops his reserve, leans forward, and replies passionately, "Yeah, it is. But there''s three options. One is to say, ''Hey, it''s the bottom of the ocean. Who cares?'' Another is to say, ''Oh, no, it''s the ocean! How could they think of doing this?'' Then there''s a third option: ''Let''s do some experiments and find out if this is a good idea or a bad idea.''
"What everybody forgets is we live in a fossil-fuel world. We''ve been pouring it into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. About half of it has gone in the ocean already."
Carbon sequestration is not the only solution being advanced to attack the CO2 problem. At Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, researchers are working on a method called iron fertilization that involves cultivating tiny CO2-absorbing marine plants. Their hope is that, by supplying nutrients to certain parts of the ocean, they can cultivate phytoplankton, which consume CO2 just as land plants do. Though iron fertilization is a young science still in the experimental phases, it holds some promise as a low-cost way to keep CO2 levels down.
But a kink is forming in the smooth line of reasoning between CO2 reduction and greenhouse gas mitigation. Greg Smestad of MIIS explains that, although CO2 is currently "the big problem," emerging research points to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)--both implicated in ozone depletion--as potentially bigger issues. Variants of HFCs contain, molecule for molecule, up to 10,000 times the warming potential of CO2--and they stay in the atmosphere longer.
In addition, says Smestad, where CO2 can be naturally absorbed by plants and the ocean, "the Earth has no mechanism for getting rid of HFCs and CFCs."
All of this speculation can lead to some very unhappy conclusions. But Smestad isn''t having any of the doomsday trip. Concern about global warming is catching on, he says, with some encouraging results. Take the oil company BP, British Petroleum, which has changed its slogan to "Beyond Petroleum," buried the little green dinosaur on its logo, and instated a happy yellow-and-green sun in its place. Or look at Shell Oil, which has invested in wind energy.
"This could be the greatest thing that''s ever happened, a boon," Smestad insists. "Energy use will double, no matter what. There are many who realize this doesn''t have to be a bad thing. Is there enough sun, wind, biomass? The indicators say yes. Is there technology? Yes. Is it cost effective? Not yet, but with economies of scale, yes."
Lars Tomanek of Hopkins Marine Station isn''t a policy expert like Smestad, but he thinks about it a lot. "A lot of people are waking up and a lot of companies are starting to look into sustainability," he says. "Sustainability is a good word--it''s not like saying ''socialism'' or ''communism.'' It actually has a capitalist overtone, because you can produce more efficiently if you use energy more wisely. So you can sell it in a way that makes sense to the capitalistic mind."
"When we were growing up we were told that to reduce smog would be economically disastrous. But, because of efforts to reduce particulate pollutants, our air is cleaner, our water is cleaner. And it wasn''t disastrous at all."