Fiction Review: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

CoverIf Christopher Priest has a formula, it can be summed up as two worlds = one character. In A Dream of Wessex, one of Julia Stretton’s worlds is an experiment conducted by the other: a utopian future based around the island of Wessex, formed when seismic activity formed a channel between part of Dorset and the rest of England.

Julia is part of a team that’s supposed to be exploring what a better future might look like. A Dream of Wessex was published in 1977, when Britain was feeling bleaker by the day, though the desire to lose oneself in a better future makes as much sense today as it did then. I’d certainly like to visit the Wessex conjured by the Ridpath projector, though a combination of parameters programmed into it and a blend of the subconsciouses of the characters dreaming inside it. It’s a place where the sun shines, where naked surfers gather around the tidal bore that sweeps through the channel between Wessex and Dorset and where problems are minor and usually self-inflicted.

It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the insights gained in Wessex were supposed to help the austere real world, but then the government soon starts asking the same question. Presumably they’re not employing a gang of experts to indulge in happy dreams, and they’re certainly not impressed by the Soviet-style government of the envisaged future of Britain.

That’s where the serpent enters their Eden, in the form of Julia’s ex-boyfriend. He’s abusive and controlling in his personal life and a bean-counting civil servant in his professional life. It’s impossible not to hate him and when it becomes evident that there’s no way to keep his subconscious from entering, and so joining the shaping of, the paradise of Wessex, it’s not hard to see that this is not going to end well.

A Dream of Wessex carries Priest’s trademarks in that it starts slowly and ends with what-the-hell-happened-there? I found myself reading it more as a literary novel that makes use of a science fiction setting than as a traditional science fiction novel, though as far as I know, it was the novel that introduced the science fiction device of shared dreaming. It’s probably too slow for the dedicated science fiction reader and too imaginative for the dedicated literary reader but if, like me, you enjoy both genres, you’ll appreciate Wessex.

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Posted in Book review: fiction

William or Will or Bill


(Aditya Doshi [CC / Flickr])

The way they sat on the couch for their first session usually told Marcia more than anything they said in the session itself. Her three o’clock  draped himself across it like a veteran lounge lizard, feet stretched in front with ankles crossed, one arm along the back as though waiting for someone to snuggle next to him.

He was trying way too hard.

She glanced at her notes to check his name, but he spoke before she found it. “ready when you are, doc.”

“Please call me Marcia. I’m a psychologist, so I’m not a doctor, And you’re William? Or do you prefer Will or Bill?”

“Whatever you like, Marcia.”

That told her something as well. Not telling her his preferred name kept her at a distance, but she wouldn’t press it for now. A direct approach wasn’t going to work on this one.

“Let’s start with your first memory,” she said. “What would that be?”

Bill frowned. He hadn’t expected that. “I wonder what that would be.”

“Whatever comes to mind first,” said Marcia.

“Well…when I was a student, I got chatting to this girl. She said she was on the English literature course and wanted to do her dissertation on DH Lawrence. I told her my first memory was walking in on my mother in bed with the window cleaner.”

“Was it true?” asked Marcia.

“Not exactly, but it worked.”

“So you made it up?”

“No, but it wasn’t my first memory. I must have been six or seven when it happened, and he was an electrician. But window cleaner sounded funnier. It made her laugh and then made her feel guilty for laughing because in a DH Lawrence novel, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to get over it. But I don’t need to tell you about psychology, do I Marcia?”

His laugh was slightly forced, but she mirrored it as if she was joining in the joke.

“So really, what was your first memory?” she asked.

“Still thinking about that. I remember there was another girl who idolised Hilary Mantel. Total girl crush. I told her it was falling in a pond at my father’s funeral. It was outside the church and covered with that green weed, so I thought it was part of the lawn. Then there was a blazing row over who was supposed to be watching me.”

Marcia raised an eyebrow.

“That worked too,” he went on. “I thought a Mantel fan would go for the death bit, and I was right. Really, I must have been nine by the time it happened, and I don’t think it was at the funeral. I’m pretty sure it was at my mother’s wedding, but there was only a couple of weeks between them so it’s a bit blurred.”

He shrugged.

“You obviously have a way with the ladies,” said Marcia.

He smiled.

She smiled back.

“But really, what was that first memory?” she asked.

William or Will or Bill looked her in the eye.

“We only just met, Doc. I don’t know you well enough to tell you that yet.”

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Quest of a Collector


(Laika ac [Wikimedia Commons])

Leonard snatched his hand back from the ladder. He should have known it would be hot. Everything in the Namib desert was hot by the afternoon. Especially a rusty old ship that had run aground so long ago that the desert was half way through swallowing her hole.

He was lucky there was a ladder here at all. Perhaps the crew had used it to escape when it was waves instead of sand dunes piling up against the hull, or perhaps it had been left here by some looter, decades ago.

Leonard took a deep breath and scrambled aboard, moving fast so that his hands were never on a rung for longer than he could help. He stood on the deck, made of wooden planks that had fared better than the steel hull, and looked at his palms. They smarted from the burns and the sharp edges of the flaking rust, but there was no visible damage.

A life buoy lay on the deck. It’s orange and white stripes had faded, but Leonard could still make out the words SS Malvern. He’d got the right ship. He hadn’t been sure because the desert had stripped the paint from the hull. Her profile looked right, but he hadn’t been sure.

He was within a stone’s throw of the end of the quest that had begun in the registry of Lloyd’s of London which, right now, felt far more than six months and a continent away. He’d spent a week searching the wrecks littering the Namib for the Malvern and now he needed to find the galley.

He tried a hatch but it didn’t budge. A crowbar from his pack forced it open with a groan of protest, revealing a companion way that looked pitch dark from the glare of the tropical sun. He placed the life buoy across the frame in case it slammed closed behind him. He hadn’t come here to be trapped inside with the ghosts of anyone who hadn’t made it off.

His torch showed no ghosts, but stepping inside made him feel as though he’d been uncomfortably close to a flame but had now stepped inside an oven. He took a pull of water. It didn’t help. He’d have to be quick in here, or he’d pass out. He wouldn’t have a chance if the Malvern had been a passenger ship that he’d have to search from top to bottom, but the crew quarters of a cargo ship were small enough that he found the single galley fairly quickly.

It was a moment worthy of savouring, but there was already enough sweat in his eyes to blur his vision. He needed to get out of here.

The first couple of cupboards showed him nothing but tins of corn beef. Third time lucky, he thought. For once, it turned out to be true. The torch beam played over something he’d seen in pictures so often that he saw it in his dreams. Yet the pictures had all been in black and white and consequently, so were the dreams. What he saw was faded, but it was in colour. He was afraid his fingers would go straight through the card, but the desert had preserved its treasures for him.

A shredded wheat packet issued in 1929.

He placed it on the counter, next to a mummified fish that someone must have given the cook immediately before the Malvern blundered into the African coast. There was a plastic box in his pack, carefully measured to the dimensions of shredded wheat packets so that it would protect it from being crushed without giving it space to be rattled around. Being careful not to drip sweat on it, Leonard placed the packet in the box, and the box in his pack.

His collection was complete.

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The Fairy Princess of Worms


(A. C. Tatarinov [Wikimedia Commons])

Ellie didn’t believe her brother was really excited about a worm.

“It’s a worm.” She could agree with his characterisation of the green squirm in his hand. She didn’t need to share his enthusiasm for it.

“It’s more than just a worm.” Donald held it up. “It’s Eulalia viridis. Isn’t it a beauty?”

Ellie looked closer. She had to admit she’s have trouble walking past a necklace in that shade of green, but… “Donald, it’s a worm.”

“You only see these on really low spring tides,” he said.  “Maybe four or five days in the year.”

Ellie sighed and knelt in the mud beside him. They weren’t going to get past the worm until she’d paid homage to it. “It’s a lovely worm. But I didn’t come half way across the country to go rock pooling.”

“But it’s the best time to go rock pooling.” Donald evidently didn’t think that calling the worm lovely was sufficient homage. “Look, you see the red line down the segments? You can actually see the blood pumping along the length of it.”

“OK, it’s a green and red worm. It’s the fairy princes of worms. The Lambton Worm would kneel before it alongside a sandworm of Arrakis if either of them were half as proficient as your green and red worm when it comes to existing. But we need to talk about-”

“How does a worm kneel?” Donald cut her off.

“All right then, they’d grovel.” Ellie took a breath and made herself speak slower. “She’s not coming back, you know. Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

“I know she isn’t.” Donald dipped his hand in the rock pool, letting the fairy princess of worms shimmy away. “Of course I know she isn’t.”

“Good.” Elle squeezed his shoulder. “That’s good.”

Donald leapt to his feet. “Look! Over there! I think that bird’s a whimbrel. I haven’t seen one of those all summer.”

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A Sister of Mercy’s Gift


(Dennis Skley [CC / Flickr])

Head down. Don’t make eye contact.

Derek’s left arm jostled someone as he shuffled on to the train.

He flinched from the contact. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He didn’t look up as he said it, in case the person he’d touched was looking at him. His chest was already tight as he heard the carriage doors slide shut, trapping him in here with people.

The train rumbled into motion, generating a cocoon of noise that rose between Derek and the people he was trapped in here with for at least as long as it took to get to the next station. It made him feel a little further from them. A little safer.

He lifted his eyes from his shoes and located a vacant double seat. He swayed toward it, not wanting to use seat backs for support in case he accidentally touched someone’s head. He slumped into the seat and shrank against the window. The backs of the seats in front were close enough to make him feel isolated. The isolation made him feel safer, even though he knew it was an illusion. He knew his fear of the other people in the carriage wasn’t rational either, so perhaps it balanced out.

The sense of isolation made him feel so safe that he found the courage to raise his head and look down the aisle.

What he saw smashed him across the face like a blow from a cane. Her face conjured the memory of the cane so vividly that he flinched and clutched his cheek.

He must be mistaken, he told himself. It was the fear getting the better of him again. He was safe here. Nothing to fear – at least, no more than usual.

Fear or not, he had to know if he’d seen who he thought he’d seen or if his imagination had found a new way to torment him.

He looked down the aisle again. The woman was still there, half a carriage away and staring at nothing. He shrank back to the window,

He was sure.

She was older and more wrinkled, and the wimple he remembered was gone, replaced with a smart blouse and jacket, but he’d never forget the sister of mercy who had raised so many bruises on his six-year-old, his ten-year old, his fourteen-year-old body, and left so many scars festering in his sixty-year-old mind.

His breath came in short gasps. His hands were shaking. He knew the signs of the terror rising with him. He fought against it, even though he knew the fight would end, as it always did, in a quivering, whimpering wreck of the Derek he’d have to spend the next months rebuilding for the umpteenth time.

But something was wrong.

This wasn’t the tear-squeezing, bladder-loosening terror that had broken him so many times.

This was a fire, burning within him, tempering terror as burning charcoal tempers iron into steel.

He raised his head, looking straight at the woman who had once been Sister Immaculata.

He stood and walked, back straight, feet steady, until he was looking down at her.

“I know who you are,” he said.

She looked up. Her jaw quivered, sending waves of fear across the wrinkled fat of her face. She cowered as Derek had cowered before her so many times.

“I wish I could believe in hell. Just for you,” he said. “But I don’t. Not anymore.”

The woman whimpered, dissolving from the monster who had yanked him out of sleep so many times into a shrivelled old woman who knew the feeling she’d used reduce Derek to a wreck of a man for the last fifteen years.

He turned his back on her and went back to his seat.

There was no more to say.

Partly inspired by reports of abuse at Smyllum Park Orphanage.

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Non-fiction Review: Chasing the Devil by Tim Butcher

ChasingTheDevilIf it wasn’t the least promising expedition into uncharted territory ever attempted, it must have been close. In 1934, a sickly-looking Englishman light-heartedly asked his socialite cousin to join him on an expedition to Liberia, which was one of the few parts of Africa yet to be surveyed. It was at a wedding reception and later, they would both admit that the champagne had something to do with both his invitation and her acceptance of it.

The socialite cousin was 27-year-old Barbara Greene. The sicky-looking Englishman was Graham Greene. At 30, Greene had yet to achieve the fame he enjoyed in later life, although he had already written Brighton Rock and several other novels, and been sued for libel by a nine-year-old Shirley Temple after he described her as being disturbingly desirable to ‘middle-aged men and clergymen’.

Neither of them had ever set foot in Africa, but a year later saw them hiking through Liberia on foot, and occasionally carried on hammocks. It was very much a colonial era expedition, with an army of bearers and hampers from Fortnum and Mason, but it was still a remarkable logistical achievement for two people who had never attempted anything like it before. Graham Greene nearly died of a fever before they reached the capital of Monrovia, but reach it they did.

In 2009, Tim Butcher followed their route, by road through Sierra Leone and on foot through Liberia. Chasing the Devil is his account of his much smaller expedition, carried out with three companions and no hammocks. Unlike the Greenes, Butcher had spent a substantial amount of time in Africa as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, including covering the bloody civil wars in both countries during the 1990s and 2000s. He describes countries still reeling from those wars, and his memoir includes many conversations with people whose lives, and often bodies, were torn apart in ways that will never heal.

Butcher says far more about the land and its people than Graham Greene did in his own memoir, Journey without Maps, which gives little detail on anything other than his state of mind. Most of Greene’s description of other people consists of disparaging descriptions of colonial society and missionaries, while neither his bearers nor his cousin are even named. It’s strangely lacking in detail from one of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century, and Butcher’s entwining of his own expedition with his findings on Greene’s filled in some blanks that have bothered me since I read it.

I have yet to read Barbara Greene’s account, Too Late to Turn Back, though the excerpts I’ve read here and elsewhere look as though she gave much more attention to the people and places than her more famous cousin did.

Nevertheless, Butcher’s account did not answer what, for me, was the biggest question unanswered by Journey Without Maps. The Greenes’ expedition had an objective beyond simply traipsing through Liberia: the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society (now Anti-Slavery International) had asked him to investigate reports of slavery in Liberia. Journey Without Maps makes no mention of the society’s involvement, let alone whether he and Barbara found anything worth reporting. It’s entirely possible that the day-to-day business of not getting lost or dying of malaria absorbed all their energy, and any investigation fell to the bottom of the priority list. It’s not even certain that they would have recognised slavery if they saw it. For two people whose experience didn’t extend beyond England, normal life in Liberia would have appeared strange enough that they may not have been able to tell it from abnormality.

Presumably they impressed someone because Graham Greene was later recruited by MI6, the British intelligence service, who sent him to Sierra Leone. Quite what he did there is another mystery; his memoir Ways of Escape talks more about his ongoing spat with his superior officer in Nigeria than any actual spying. A senior MI6 agent, Nicholas Elliott, described arriving in Freetown to have Greene ask him to supply condoms for the travelling brothel he was using to extract information from lonely merchant sailors, suggesting he at least tried to spy on someone.

If Chasing the Devil throws little light on the mysteries and idiosyncrasies of Graham Greene’s life, it did take me on not one but two journeys, seven decades apart and for that, it was well worth the read.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Your Voltaire from your Trollope


(Mark Seton [CC / Flickr])

What do you think you are doing in my library?

I see you skulking around as if you think you’re Hercule Poirot looking for clues to a murder which, I assure you, has not happened. I run a respectable household. Your invitation was to my husband’s soiree, which is in the drawing room. As an aspiring Miss Marple, I am certain you have noticed the distinction between the drawing room and the library.

Are you avoiding my husband by feigning an interest in books? Surely a man so accomplished at skulking must have a guilty conscience, which is a perfect qualification for my husband’s company. If I had such a thing, I would be positively revelling in the company of rogues he invited in my name. As I do not, I prefer my own company which you are now intruding on.

Keep your impertinences to yourself.

Of course I have a conscience. I have maintained its pristine condition by doing my duty as a hostess. I have supplied you with canapés, with the most accomplished harpist in the Home Counties and I with brandy. I graced you with my company until the brandy rendered you convivial enough to keep your own. Now I wish to keep my own company in my own library outwith the presence of those who do not know their Voltaire from their Trollope.

Please remove your petit-bourgeois smirk from your countenance. It’s an essential distinction in this room if no other. You may, if you please, smirk your way around the rest of the house for as long as the name ‘Trollope’ entertains you. You may smirk at it in the kitchens, in the parlour, in my bedroom, and if it pleases you, the servant’s quarters are entirely at your disposal.

In short, every room in the house is yours to smirk in, except for this one.

Farewell. Indeed.

Close the door behind you, and do not lurk on the other side.

He’s gone, George. You can come out from under the chair now.

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A New Leaf for Autumn


(Jamie Davies [CC / Flickr])

Celia knew it was going to be a bad day when she heard the rustling emanating from the living room. She diverted to the kitchen and downed her first cup of coffee before she felt ready to face it.

Francis was on his knees, surrounded by piles of paper and supermarket carrier bags.

“Again?” Celia couldn’t keep hr dismay out of her voice.

Francis looked up. “First day of autumn, darling. Perfect time to turn over a new leaf.”

Celia looked for somewhere to sit down, but all the chairs were buried under mounds of paper. “The leaves don’t turn over in autumn, darling. They fall off the trees, cover everything in sight and generally make a big mess.”

“Oh, don’t be such a pessimist.” Francis was squinting at a piece of yellowed paper, looking as if he was having trouble making out the words. “We’ve been talking about decluttering for years.”

“Yes, decluttering,” said Celia. Not pulling everything out of the corners it’s been hidden in, moving it around and putting it back.”

“That’s why it’s time to turn over a new leaf,” said Francis. “Ah, this is the receipt from the chap who put up the shed. Better keep this.”

“Darling, the shed fell down five years ago.”

“Still…” Francis put the paper on top of a pile of similarly yellowed papers on the armchair, which slid on to the floor.

“Autumn,” said Celia.

Francis looked at her as if he had no idea what she was talking about.

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Self Esteem for the Yes Man


(Simon Evans [CC / Flickr])

You look like a man who needs to talk to someone, so why don’t you get it off your chest? Tell me what’s on your mind.

No, let me guess. The look on your face tells me a thing or two about you before you even speak. It tells me you’re a man stuck working for a boss with half your intelligence? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Girlfriend who knows how to want but not how to thank. Been there too.

No girlfriend at all? Got that T-shirt.

Tell me some details, let’s see if I can help you. We’ll start with how to calibrate that boss of yours. Sounds like he’s a sheep, so it shouldn’t be difficult. We’ll get to the girlfriend problem later. Dimwit bosses are good practice. Pickup technique is a little harder.

Now, tell me about your latest problem at work.

Ah, right. So to summarise, you got the assignment in three days early and – let me guess – your line manager had you spend those three days rewriting round in circles until you ended up back where you started just in time for the deadline.

This is a problem technically called the bossmuppet. The less they understand what you’re doing, the more they have to make you redo it so they can say they’re actually managing you instead of riding your coattails. The best way to deal with them is to hand everything in at the last minute so they don’t have time to go Kermit on it.

That’s what it’s called. The first step is to learn the jargon.

But let’s examine the real problem here. It’s not the bossmuppet, is it? We need to look at the other half of this interaction. The half that turns up in every interaction that leaves you with that look on your face.


Now don’t take this the wrong way. It’s a common problem with low self-esteem which, let’s be honest here, is your real problem.

You are a yes-man. I’m sure everyone in the office says so. Just not to your face.

You’re frowning because you know, in your heart, that it’s the truth.

The question before us now is: what are you going to do about it?

Well, yes, denying it is the first stage of acceptance. No, don’t dismiss it, I learned this stuff in seminars with the world’s leading experts on self-esteem…

Hey, I’m offering you the solution to all your problems here and you’re just walking away…

I can’t understand why no one ever takes me seriously.

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Inspirations: Terraforming Earth with Iron

  • Iron sulphide could encourage marine algal growth.
  • Small-scale experiments have shown it moving carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean.
  • It could offset global warming, but the large-scale effects are unpredictable.
  • In 2012, Russ George provoked controversy by boosting fish stocks in an unregulated experiment.


Marine algal bloom south of Cornwall, UK (Mike Peel [Wikimedia Commons])

In 1988, oceanographer John Martin was giving a lecture at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Perhaps he became a little carried away with his research, because he put on his best Dr Strangelove accent and said, “give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age”.

He was being flippant – but not that flippant. The research behind his quip is still being discussed as a way to restore fisheries and, as Martin was hinting at, to counteract global warming. To put it another way, Martin was talking about terraforming our own planet. Thirty years and several small-scale experiments later, oceanographers and marine biologists are still discussing and debating whether Martin’s half-tanker of iron would actually work and if it did, what it would actually do.

To put it another way: could we and should we?

Where should the iron go?

Martin’s research revolved around sampling station PAPA in the Gulf of Alaska, roughly half way between the Canadian Pacific coast and the southern end of the Aleutian Islands. Those waters are packed full of the sort of nutrients that marine algae need to grow, but Martin found that not much algae actually growing there. After a few experiments, he concluded that there was one nutrient missing: iron. Marine algae don’t need much iron, but without the trace amounts they do need, they couldn’t do much with all the nitrates and phosphates around them.

The oceanic ecosystem is vast, as we’d expect on a planet that hides more than two thirds of its surface under the sea. Before Martin’s experiment, no one had thought much about trying to manipulate it because it was assumed that such a massive system would need


(Miwok Follow [CC / Flickr])

an impractically massive manipulation. When Martin showed that all the North Pacific algae needed to grow was a trace amount of iron, he had identified a manipulation on a small enough scale that it might be possible to do it. His idea of iron fertilisation went on to become one of the key suggestions in the field of geoengineering:  intentionally manipulating the earth’s climate.

Sampling station PAPA was in what is called a ‘high nutrient low chlorophyll zone’, or HNLC. The HNLCs encircle the earth in the sub-Arctic regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and also in the sub-Antarctic zones of the Southern Ocean, which is the ocean that encircles Antarctica. The high nutrients refer to all the goodies floating around that algae need to reproduce into more algae. A quick way of measuring how much algae there is in the water is to measure how much chlorophyll there is – that’s the green stuff that plants and algae use to harvest energy from sunlight – so low chlorophyll means not much algae.

From iron to an ice age

Martin’s quip about an ice age came out of research on global warming, which was a fairly recent research area at the time. Before talking about what chucking iron in the sea has to do with global warming, I realise there are still a few people who think that two centuries of pumping carbon into the atmosphere cannot possibly have any consequences, so it’s worth looking at some headline figures compiled by the


Historic global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels derived from Antarctic ice core data (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

International Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is an international consortium of scientists that compiles data from many different sources into a report that is updated every few years.

Their latest report was released in 2014 and is vast and highly technical, but it’s worth looking at some of the headline figures in their synthesis report: the most important being that the global temperature rose by 0.85°C (0.5°F) between 1880 and 2012, and continues to rise by around 0.05°C per year. If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s worth remembering that the difference between 1880 and the coldest point of the last ice age was around 6°C (3.3°F), and that rate of increase adds up to another degree (0.6°F) every twenty years.

The main reason for the rising global temperature is carbon dioxide, which is produced by fossil fuels. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been digging up carbon that has been buried for the last 300 million years, in the form of coal and oil, and burning into


Atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (Earth System Research Laboratory)

carbon dioxide. Since the days of James Watt and Matthew Bolton, carbon-releasing technology has spread across the world so that every year, more carbon was released than the last. That trend at least has levelled off in the last three years thanks largely to the spread of renewable technologies, but we’re still pumping huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We only have to step outdoors and look up to understand that the atmosphere is a large place, but that doesn’t mean its capacity is unlimited. The IPCC’s physical science report tells us that the atmosphere contained some 278 parts per million carbon dioxide in 1750, before the industrial revolution got started, and rose to 390.5 parts per million in 2011. The year after the report was published, it broke 400 parts per million. As carbon dioxide rises, so does the Earth’s temperature.

So what does all this have to do with iron and oceans?

Sending carbon to Davy Jones’s locker

The answer lies in the physical properties of carbon dioxide. It’s a very stable compound, so once it’s found its way into the atmosphere, it tends to stay there. The only natural process that removes it is, as we all learned at secondary school, photosynthesis: the process by which plants gather water and carbon dioxide and use the energy from sunlight to make glucose and oxygen. What they didn’t tell us, at least at my secondary school, is that most photosynthesis happens not in the leaves of plants, but in single-celled marine algae floating close to the top of the ocean surface.

Martin’s insight was that while algae require a lot of different nutrients to divide, they stop when the first one runs out. In the HNLCs, the first to run out is iron. With more


The sub-Arctic Pacific Ocean: a shipwreck off Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands (NOAA Photo Library [CC / Flickr])

iron, algae could divide more and convert all the nutrients floating around in those oceans into more algae. Those algae would then be eaten by animal plankton, which in turn would be eaten by fish and so the carbon drawn from the air would move up the food chain.

What particularly interested Martin was that some of that carbon would sink. Because photosynthesis depends on sunlight, the subpolar oceans are highly seasonal, with algae and animals growing and dividing in the long days of the summer and then dying off when the winter closes in. Here in Britain, anyone who visits the coast at different times of year can watch the sea turn from blue during the winter to chlorophyll-green in the summer as it becomes saturated with photosynthesising algae. There is even more growth in the subpolar oceans because the longer days mean more sunlight.

When the algae and many of the animals that feed on it die, many simply disintegrate. They become the fertiliser for next year’s burst of growth. But some of them sink into the deep ocean. As they do, they take the carbon that forms them to a place where it can’t find its way back into the atmosphere. If enough carbon was to sink, Martin reasoned, global warming could be consigned to history.

EIFEX’s diatoms

Martin himself retired soon after his quip about the ice age, and he died a few years later in 1993. It was left to others to see whether his idea worked in practice. Several small-scale studies have shown that a small amount of iron in the right place can indeed cause a lot of algal growth. One of the more convincing was the so-called European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX) led by Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Smetacek and his international colleagues were able to trace the massive growth of a bloom of algae called diatoms, and then follow them as they died and at least half of them sank to a kilometre. They lost track of them after that, though it’s safe to assume that they kept sinking.

The EIFEX team weren’t able to measure how much carbon they removed from the atmosphere. There have been a lot of attempts to work out exactly how much carbon will be sent to the depths by a ton of iron. The lower estimates say that it would remove about 1,000 tons, which is a lot but probably not enough for it to be feasible to throw around enough iron. The higher estimates are that a ton of iron could sink over 100,000 tons of carbon, which would make it worth a try. One of the more cited models estimated that iron fertilisation could reasonably be used to remove a gigaton of carbon (that’s


Icebergs in the Southern Ocean (David Stanley [CC / Flickr])

1,000,000,000 tons) of carbon from the atmosphere per year. That would slow down the rise in carbon levels but while we’re pumping 10 gigatons (The level measured in 2014 was 9,855,000,000 tons) up there every year, it wouldn’t turn the rise into a decline.

Enter DMS

But perhaps it wouldn’t have to. Lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is not an end unto itself, but a means to the end of halting the rise in global temperature. As marine algae photosynthesise, they produce a chemical called dimethyl sulphide, or DMS. When DMS is released into the atmosphere, much of it reacts with oxygen to form sulphides.

While carbon dioxide warms the Earth by reflecting heat back toward it, sulphides have the opposite effect: they reflect heat from the sun away from the Earth. The process is less direct than the ‘greenhouse’ process of carbon dioxide: sulphides encourage the formation of clouds, which reflect heat away before it gets caught up in the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Iron fertilisation would offset global warming not only by sequestering carbon in the deep ocean, but also by generating clouds that keep heat out of the atmosphere.

Why, then, do we not see ships full of iron sulphide heading for the subpolar oceans to cool down the Earth?

The law of unintended consequences

The answer is that even the exponents of iron fertilisation are cautious about it. Geoengineering involves tinkering with a vast and complex system in ways that can’t be


(Defence Images [CC / Flickr])

properly tested beforehand. The best mathematical models in the world are only as good as the data, which is woefully incomplete. The only way to find out what the effects of tinkering with the Earth is to try it, and then we all have to live with the consequences, for better or worse.

Martin himself suggested one danger, which is that overdoing it would lower the Earth’s temperature so far that it would cause another ice age. Carbon dioxide was down to 200 parts per million at the height of the last ice age, and a dropping the Earth’s temperature by a few degrees would be just as bad as raising it by a few degrees. In fact, it now appears that it’s unlikely to be a problem: ocean fertilisation simply won’t remove that much carbon.

A more pressing worry is that when dead algae sink into the deep ocean, it’s not just carbon they’re taking with them but all the other nutrients that would otherwise have fertilised next year’s bloom. Fertilisation might work very well for a few years but after


(Davide D’Amico [CC / Flickr])

that, the rest of the nutrients simply may not be there. A few gigatons of carbon might have been removed, but at the cost of sterilising vast tracts of ocean that supply commercial fisheries and feed great whales.

Another concern is that the clouds formed by DMS release would tend to move rainfall from the subtropics to the tropics. The result would be floods in places like Bangladesh and Bolivia and more droughts and wildfires in places like Australia and California – as if there aren’t enough already.

Time to move on?

There’s no way to tell how realistic these models are, and it’s quite possible that the problems caused by checking global warming with iron fertilisation would be less serious than the problems caused by not checking climate change with iron fertilisation. We are, after all, already engaged in a massive geoengineering project by pumping all that carbon up there in the first place.


(Tim Donnelly [CC / Flickr])

In 2009, a group of scientists summed up the concerns in an editorial for the Nature journal. The title summed up their position: Ocean fertilization: time to move on. They were not advocating against geoengineering in itself, but arguing that the risks of ocean fertilisation outweigh the likely benefits.

While most of the interest in ocean fertilisation has come from academic scientists, who have always abided by the precautionary principle and kept their experiments to a small scale, there is no law against it. Resolutions have been passed by the International Maritime Organization and under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, allowing small scale research studies but condemning large-scale attempts at geoengineering. However, they amount to no more than a voluntary agreement by the signing governments to not do it. They don’t include sanctions for anyone who takes it into their head to try it.

Lessons from salmon

Which is exactly what entrepreneur Russ George did in 2012, when he dumped 120 tons of iron sulphide in the North Pacific. George’s experiment was on too small a scale to have an appreciable effect on atmospheric carbon, but that wasn’t what he was trying to do. He had recently formed a company called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation,


Coho salmon (BLM Oregon & Washington [CC / Flickr])

which claimed to be working with the Haida Nation – indigenous Canadians living mostly on the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia – with the aim of restoring their fisheries.

George kept his activities quiet until after the event, when they were uncovered by The Guardian. The revelations were met with a storm of protest out of all proportion to the mere hundred tons of iron, aimed more at the principle of unregulated attempts to manipulate the environment than the specific experiment. The Guardian article quotes oceanographer John Cullen:

History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.

Others were concerned that unaccountable fertilisation schemes like George’s might provoke a backlash against potentially useful research. Victor Smetacek, who headed the EIFEX trial, was quoted in New Scientist:

I am disturbed and disappointed, as this will make legitimate, transparent fertilisation experiments more difficult.

George’s experiment might have attracted less criticism if it could have been written off


Sockeye salmon (Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [CC / Flickr])

as an unsuccessful cowboy escapade, but that’s difficult to do for one simple reason: it does appear to have worked.

Exactly how well is rather difficult to establish. Satellite images show that there was a much more chlorophyll in the fertilised area than there had been the year before. The Corporation’s website confidently asserts that there were far more salmon in the year after the experiment than there had been for years, but cites an article in The Globe and Mail newspaper rather than a technical report. The Fraser River Panel reported that the number of salmon returning to the Fraser to spawn doubled in the year after George’s experiment (it’s in the figure on p.27), which does support the Corporation’s assertion. Unfortunately, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans only report up to 2011.

Nobody was measuring how much carbon it sent to the deep as George was interested in building up a fishery rather than geoengineering.

Carbophobes vs carbophiles

The experiment earned some bravos among the chorus of raspberries, notably by


Scanning electron micrograph of diatoms (Amada44 [Wikimedia  Commons])

aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, who has spoken and written a lot on the subject of terraforming and whose main claim to fame is his work on solar sails that I’ve pontificated about before. Perhaps it’s not surprising that praise for ocean fertilisation comes from a man used to thinking big. He refers to a quadrupling of salmon stocks in the year after the experiment, but only cites Russ George’s blog as a source, which is hardly an impartial estimate.

Zubrin’s view is that of a maverick. He actively welcomes the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a boon for plant growth and food production, and sees George’s experiment as a way of taking advantage of that. He dismisses the ‘antihuman ravings’ of George’s detractors, who he labels as ‘carbophobes’.

There is a whole other debate to be had about Zubrin’s ‘carbophilia’, to adopt his own terminology, though the whole concept of ocean fertilisation would be moot if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s more to plant and algal growth than how much carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere.

While George’s one-off experiment is unlikely to have done any lasting damage, nobody seems to think that it would be a good idea for anyone with a hundred tons of iron to throw it wherever they wanted more fish. That would be to carry out geoengineering as an incidental consequence, which is what we call ‘pollution’.

Fertilisation or pollution?

Though pollution is hardly a rare phenomenon, as the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation states on a section of its website titled ‘Geoengineering’ – hinting, perhaps, at grander ambitions than restoring salmon:


(Jutta M. Jenning [CC / Flickr])

One must ask, why is it OK to dump billions of liters of known hazardous material into our fresh water and oceans, but media-based controversy arises when placing 120 tons of a known nutrient back into the ocean, that has been scientifically shown to be in necessary and beneficial?

As we’ve seen, there are answers to the rhetorical question. The effects of ocean fertilisation are not all positive. It’s not for one small company to decide what is best for the world, though I type those words knowing full well that it would not be the first small company to do so.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
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