Journal Article

Side effects and accounting aspects of hypothetical large-scale Southern Ocean iron fertilization


  • Oschlies
  • A.
  • Koeve
  • W.
  • Rickels
  • W.
  • Rehdanz
  • K.

Recent suggestions to slow down the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide have included ocean fertilization by addition of the micronutrient iron to Southern Ocean surface waters, where a number of natural and artificial iron fertilization experiments have shown that low ambient iron concentrations limit phytoplankton growth. Using a coupled carbon-climate model with the marine biology's response to iron addition calibrated against data from natural iron fertilization experiments, we examine biogeochemical side effects of a hypothetical large-scale Southern Ocean Iron Fertilization (OIF) that need to be considered when attempting to account for possible OIF-induced carbon offsets. In agreement with earlier studies our model simulates an OIF-induced increase in local air-sea CO2 fluxes by about 73 GtC over a 100-year period, which amounts to about 48% of the OIF-induced increase in organic carbon export out of the fertilized area. Offsetting CO2 return fluxes outside the region and after stopping the fertilization at 1, 7, 10, 50, and 100 years are quantified for a typical accounting period of 100 years. For continuous Southern Ocean iron fertilization, the CO2 return flux outside the fertilized area cancels about 20% of the fertilization-induced CO2 air-sea flux within the fertilized area on a 100-yr timescale. This "leakage" effect has a radiative impact more than twice as large as the simulated enhancement of marine N2O emissions. Other side effects not yet discussed in terms of accounting schemes include a decrease in Southern Ocean oxygen levels and a simultaneous shrinking of tropical suboxic areas, and accelerated ocean acidification in the entire water column in the Southern Ocean at the expense of reduced globally-averaged surface-water acidification. A prudent approach to account for the OIF-induced carbon sequestration would account for global air-sea CO2 fluxes rather than for local fluxes into the fertilized area only. However, according to our model, this would underestimate the potential for offsetting CO2 emissions by about 20% on a 100 year accounting timescale. We suggest that a fair accounting scheme applicable to both terrestrial and marine carbon sequestration has to be based on emission offsets rather than on changes in individual carbon pools.

Experte IfW Kiel