Looking to Oceans to Capture Carbon Dioxide James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, talks about his idea to spur the oceans to capture large amounts of CO2. Under the plan, large vertical tubes would bring nutrient-rich water from the ocean depths closer to the surface, feeding algal blooms that would absorb excess carbon dioxide.
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Looking to Oceans to Capture Carbon Dioxide

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Looking to Oceans to Capture Carbon Dioxide

Looking to Oceans to Capture Carbon Dioxide

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A little bit later in the program, we'll talk about what may have wiped out the woolly mammoth and other Ice Age creatures, and what scientists hope to learn by sequencing the mammoth's genome.

But up first, climate change - an urgent warning and a proposed solution for the problem of global warming from scientist James Lovelock. Professor Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which says that entire Earth functions as a single organism. It's a set of interrelated systems and anything that happens to one part of the organism will have repercussions throughout the entire system.

If you bring this back to global warming, that's why you and I here in the lower 48 should be worried about rapidly melting ice in the Arctic because it's going to affect us here and everywhere else around the world.

And Lovelock says we need to act now - quickly, urgently - to slow the warming. The situation is serious enough that we need to take emergency action. Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Lovelock and his colleague, Chris Rapley, proposed a global warming fix that would spur the ocean to capture large amounts of carbon dioxide. He's joining us now to talk about his plan and why now is the time to try bioengineering fixes.

If you'd like to talk with Dr. Lovelock, give us a number - give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Also, you can visit us in "Second Life" at science school. We're there. Look for SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts. James Lovelock is author of "The Revenge of Gaia." He is a geophysicist, an honorary visiting fellow at Oxford University. And he joins us by phone from his home in Cornwall.

Good evening, welcome to the program.

Dr. JAMES LOVELOCK (Author, "The Revenge of Gaia"): Good evening there.

FLATOW: Would it be fair to say that you're - you don't share the view that there is much time for us to do something. We have to something immediately?

Dr. LOVELOCK: No, I don't. I think things are happening so rapidly that even by a soon as 2040, many parts of the world will be so uninhabitable that people will be migrating to the cooler dozens of places.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So there's really not time for all this talking and considering and thinking about it. You've - we've got to start capturing some of the CO2 out of the atmosphere?

Dr. LOVELOCK: Well, you mentioned the melting ice gap. I think that illustrates it. Some call the North Polar ice, those floating ice, the canary in the mine. It really is. And that canary has been waving something bad recently. You may have heard in the news that in as little as five, perhaps, 10 or 15 years, almost all of the ice floating on the North Pole will be gone. That's a huge change. That makes a huge change to the heat budget of the Earth. It's a kind of thing, as you said, will affect us all.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, you have written a proposal for us. Basically, I would describe is as stirring up the ocean to curry, to make it easier for the algae in the ocean to start eating the CO2. Would that be correct?

Dr. LOVELOCK: Yes, it's correct. You see, what happens is the top surface of the ocean tends to be very stable, like an inversion layer over a city in the atmosphere, and nutrients in the cooler waters below don't mix in. And as a result, the algae living in the top layer soon die and their bodies fall out through it.

So the top layer becomes beautifully clear and blue, typical tropical water. You can see right down through it. There's no life in it. It's a desert. But if you can stir it up and mix in the nutrient waters from below, then the algae can grow again and get on with their job of pumping down carbon dioxide, and also, equally importantly, putting a gas- dimethyl sulfide - in the air that makes clouds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you're idea, as you mentioned in Nature, is to use a set of pipes to increase the mixing of the ocean.

Dr. LOVELOCK: That is right, but I must say straight away it's not my original idea. I think Israeli scientists first thought of it. It was long ago, from 1980's. And there's an American company at motion that I think is actually trying the idea out at the moment. We watched for it with interest.

FLATOW: So the pipes you put - you put pipes in the water, and that would move up the nutrient-rich deep water - bring the deep water up to replace the more barren water that you have there, the dead water at the surface?

Dr. LOVELOCK: Yup. That's right. Every time the waves comes along, these pipes that were riding the wave, they go up towards a crest, since the waves comes in. And then as they sink down towards the trough, water slows in at the bottom of the pipe and float out at the top. And a 10-meter diameter pipe with average height wave that's a meter high will shift as much as five tons of seawater a second. So, it's quite a hefty process.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How many pipes and how much ocean area would you need to actually make a dent in the CO2 level?

Dr. LOVELOCK: I think it has to be done on an experimental scale. It's perhaps one some tropical island, where there's coral reef that's in danger of bleaching and going away. See how it works. See what the snags are. Many people say it's a dangerous thing to do because there's more carbon dioxide in the lower waters and all it might do will be to make matters worse by bringing this up.

We have to try it out. I think it will work and so does my colleague, but it's - we have to do experiments before we know that we're on to a sure thing here. That's the - and that should be done straight away - one shouldn't wait for it.

FLATOW: We've heard of other ones. I remember from the past, someone had an idea of seeding the ocean with iron to trigger algae growth. Remember that one?

Dr. LOVELOCK: That - I do, indeed. I think it was Dr. Martin, or wasn't it someone in the West Coast? Now, it's a very good idea. The only problem with that is you have to keep on sending out vessels with the iron to do it. Now, what we are aiming at is almost a continuous supply, not only of iron, but the other nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus in below and - which would achieve much the same result.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What - you sound like you're proposal is sort of a variation of sequestering CO2 on land. You would, sort of, be sequestering it in the ocean.

Dr. LOVELOCK: Yes, but there's a big difference. What we are proposing is - not using any energy ourselves to do it, but - except making the pipes - and then letting the ocean use its own energy, wave energy, to move water from below up into the top layer and then let the natural ecosystem of the algae do the job of pumping down the CO2. In other words, it's using the Earth to cure its own problem.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you'd have these bigger algae blooms…


FLATOW: …from the CO2?

Dr. LOVELOCK: I hope so.


Dr. LOVELOCK: It wouldn't work if we didn't.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Have we run out of a time for the old-fashioned ways? And we - I mean, your opinion, then, would this - you'd have to say it's an unusual out - thinking-outside-of the-box idea? Is it time to start thinking outside of the box more often now?

Dr. LOVELOCK: I think we've got to. You see, if we wait around for international actions on these things, it usually takes years to take place. And Kyoto was 10 years ago - what was been done? Very little. And the intentions are good, but they are much more difficult to execute. You've mentioned sequestering carbon dioxide on the land. Well, can you see the Chinese or past Asians(ph) - they're doing fora week having carbon-sequestered city on to living under 10 years? I can't.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's an interesting point. Let me take a phone caller, to Peter(ph) in Berkeley. Hi, Peter.

Mr. PETER FORT (Caller): Hello, Ira. This is Peter Fort.

FLATOW: Oh. Hi, Peter.

Mr. FORT: Hi.

FLATOW: Welcome back.

Mr. FORT: Thank you. And hello, Jim Lovelock.

Dr. LOVELOCK: Hi, Peter.

Mr. FORT: And so my question is this. You have a very, very broad, rich perspective here, including reducing the CO2, including an array of energy options, nuclear included, how do you sell the environmental community, which is focused fairly narrowly on only renewable energy and efficiency on this broader array of solutions given the urgency of the situation?

Dr. LOVELOCK: It's a darn hard job and it keeps me occupied all the time. I think the key to it - and don't get me wrong here, I'm not in the least sexist - is persuading the women. I think women on the whole are much more disturbed and concerned about the use of nuclear energy than men are. Perhaps, they see it as a threat to future generation, some things like that. But whatever it is, you - the key seems to be to persuade women that nuclear energy isn't the danger they thought it was.

Mr. FORT: Interesting perspective. I testified once in - at the Energy Commission in behalf of the renewal process, and a woman actually came up and hit me afterwards. It's astonishing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORT: I never experienced anything like it. Well, thank you very much. That's what I've been looking for.

Dr. LOVELOCK: We'll they take it very seriously. Perhaps, we should all take it seriously.

FLATOW: Would your proposals make it unnecessary to go alternate energies like nuclear power?

Dr. LOVELOCK: No, it wouldn't. I think we've got to do that anyway because if you have to indicate city civilizations - and merely all of us live in cities nowadays - you've got to have a really steady, reliable source of electricity or all hell is let loose without it, as I think you saw in New York not too -all that long ago. And there's nothing like nuclear for giving a steady, constant supply. The problem with renewables, they tend to be intermittent, apart from good renewables like waterpower, which keeps going. But you've used up all the waterpower. You can use, I think, nearly everywhere.

FLATOW: If you had enough multiple sources of renewables, let's say wind turbines all over the country, would that allow you to create a system that basically backs itself up?

Dr. LOVELOCK: Well, what happens when the wind doesn't blow? What you have to do is to run fossil fuel power stations to back up the wind generators, and that's an inefficient way of running them. Germany, for example, which has got more wind power than any country in the world, has actually increased its output of CO2 since it's established the wind generators that could fairly produce electricity 18 to 20 percent of the time. The rest of the time, the electricity has to be produced by fossil fuel power stations.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I have a question here from "Second Life" from Margot Louelle(ph), and a quick question for you, wouldn't these algae blooms kill fish if we had a lot of algae?

Dr. LOVELOCK: They could do. It's part of the manning of ocean ecosystems. But, naturally, water is stirred up from below by big storms, and algal blooms have seemed to appear after that. They don't kill fish. In fact, they appear to feed fish because they're the top producers. They convert the sunlight into food that the fish live on. But he's quite right. You do occasionally get toxic algal blooms that where it prevents an ecological imbalance in the algae, and one would hope this wouldn't happen.

FLATOW: Dr. Lovelock, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. LOVELOCK: It's been a pleasure.

FLATOW: And good luck to you. James Lovelock, author of "The Revenge of Gaia," geophysicist and an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Oxford in the U.K., thinking outside the box like a lot of our listeners and guests about what to do about global warming - interesting other ideas that come up all the time.

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