Sunday, 04 Jan, 2009 Environment

Groundbreaking Discovery - Green Algae to Save Earth from Global Warming


Previously the main feature of global warming was considered to be the melting of icebergs. Now, however, it was found that this image, in fact, represents a natural process, which is able to delay or even bring to an end the climate change.

The assumption came from a team of British scientists who are currently working on board of Royal Navy's HMS Endurance. Making their studies off the coast of Antarctica, they were able to find that during the process of ice melting, small particles of iron are release into the sea. Scientists noticed that the iron feeds the algae that blooms and absorbs damaging CO2. Afterwards the iron sinks, locking up the detrimental greenhouse gas for centuries.

Researchers consider than the whole process might hold off the rising temperatures around the globe. "The Earth itself seems to want to save us," mentioned the lead scientist Professor Rob Raiswell from Leeds University.

After the discovery, scientists decided to carry out a groundbreaking experiment, which is expected to take place this month. They are going to use several tons of iron sulphate off the British island of South Georgia, which is located 800 miles east of Falklands. The experiment is meant to show whether the phenomenon could be exploited to hold off the increasing carbon emissions. Scientists expect the iron sulphate to produce a synthetic bloom of algae.

Researchers were aware of the fact that iron, released into the sea, leads to the growth of algae. However, environmentalists express their concern over the experiment, considering that the artificial way of making the algae bloom could be detrimental for the Earth's ecosystem. But the latest discovery shows that such mechanism has been taking place naturally for millions of years within the remote southern waters. This was the main reason for UN to allow the researchers to continue with the experiment, reports Daily Mail.

Professor Victor Smetacek will be the lead researcher during the next phase of the experiment. "The gas is sure to be out of the Earth’s atmosphere for several hundred years," mentioned Professor Smetacek. The main goal of the researchers is to find whether the artificial fertilization of the region will produce more algae in the Great Southern Ocean, which covers around 20 million square miles. According to the researchers, the produced algae would be able to absorb 3.5 gigatons of CO2, which is about 1/8th of all emissions produced each year though the burning of oil, gas and coal. This will also be equal to the amount of CO2 released from every chimney, power plant and car exhaust in the fast developing industries of India and Japan. Still, experts consider that there is no guarantee that everything is going to work according to the plan.

A group of experts from ice patrol ship HMS Endurance applied sledgehammers to be able to cut deep into the heart of a 33ft-long mass of polar ice. When the researchers arrived in UK, they were able to observe tiny iron particles located deep inside the ice and being just a few millionths of a millimeter wide. It is worth mentioning that the temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula registered an increase by 2.5 C over the past 50 years. However, Prof Raiswell estimated that for every percentage point rise in the amount of ice that breaks away, 26 million tons of carbon dioxide is reduced from the atmosphere.

In the next few days, Professor Smetacek, who is a polar expert, along with a German team of 49 scientists, looks forward to set sail from Cape Town to undergo the revolutionary experiment. Researchers want to known how much algae will go down to the bottom of the ocean where carbon dioxide will be kept safely. Algae that go down several miles below the surface will stay there for about one hundred years, while algae that fall only several hundred meters will emit carbon back into the atmosphere.

Dr Phil Williamson, scientific coordinator of the Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere research, financed by the National Environment Research Council, said: "We have images from satellites which show the ocean stays green for weeks afterwards but the key will be whether it stays that way."

Prof Raiswell considers that the experiment is "highly controversial," saying that oceans are not isolated boxes and the project may have a negative impact on the surrounding regions.

"We don't know what effect that would have. The ecosystems are very complicated. If the iceberg iron is useful, then it will just buy us more time. The Earth might have fightback mechanisms but we must still try to reduce our CO2 emissions," he added. Prof Smetacek, in his turn, believes that the issue is rather intricate and thus it should be studied by scientists.

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