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Lovelock and Rapley propose cure for global warming

Olive Heffernan

In a Correspondence in this week’s Nature , James Lovelock and Chris Rapley propose a way of stimulating the Earth to cure itself from the disease of global warming.

Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis and his co-author Chris Rapley, newly appointed director of the Science Museum in London, argue that drastic action is needed to help heal the planet, as they believe it is “doubtful that any of the well-intentioned technical or social schemes for carbon dieting will restore the status quo”.

They turn to the ocean for solutions. Their proposed scheme involves placing vertical pipes some 200 meters long in the sea to pump nutrient-rich water from depth to the surface, thus enhancing the growth of algae in the upper ocean. The algae, which are key in transporting carbon dioxide to the deep sea and producing dimethyl sulphide involved in the formation of sunlight-reflecting clouds, should help to prevent further warming.

Although fertilizing the ocean with iron as a way of stimulating algal growth is being considered, the use of pipes to use the ocean’s existing nutrients as fertilizer is certainly novel.

Lovelock and Rapley admit that the scheme may fail or impact the ocean in negative ways, such as through further acidification (which is recognized a significant threat to marine life and water quality) but they argue that the stakes are so high now that we can’t afford not to try such a solution.

Read the news story by Quirin Schiermeier on the proposed scheme here.


  1. Report this comment

    David B. Benson said:

    I’ve seen this scheme proposed before, with the twist that some creature called a salp (I think) is involved. According to that proponent, salp wastes fall to the ocean floor without being consumed, thus sequestering the carbon under marine deposits.

    (I am only reporting, not knowing enough to comment on the scheme.)

  2. Report this comment

    JSleeper said:

    Interestingly enough, a study published today by the University of Arizona, found that during the 2005 drought the Amazon forests did not respond how models predicted. Apparently the increased sunlight promoted growth. This goes against climate modeling. Clearly, those models need to be revised to include this new data.

  3. Report this comment

    dan bloom said:

    It’s a good proposal, worth looking into. And the media attention worldwide has been enormous.

  4. Report this comment

    Dave said:

    I have a very hard time believing this will work.

    What they are proposing, in essence, is to create something out of nothing. If they were to pump deep water to the surface, that water contains the same molar ratio of carbon dioxide:nutrients as the plants that will eventually use. Thus, if they sink below the thermocline, they will, at best, remove the same amount of carbon as was released during the initial pumping.

    This, of course, assuming 100% of the carbon they fix is exported to the deep ocean – typically this value is anywhere between 10-50%.

  5. Report this comment

    dan bloom said:

    Just a followup note. Today in the Chinese-language newspaper United Daily News in Taiwan, there was a translation of the Lovelock proposal, complete with large graphic with Chinese language notes as well. This news has travelled far and in many languages.

  6. Report this comment

    Mark S said:

    It sounds good, but a problem is that to make a difference you need to move very large volumes of water without using more carbon-releasing energy, perhaps solar-powered turbines. However, the open ocean is a rough environment for any technology, and the limiting nutrients may not be available at 200m. Follow the link to a picture of chlorophyll content near the Galapagos. Note that highest productivity is downcurrent (left) of the islands, probably because the mafic rocks on the islands are providing iron. Iron is very insoluble in oxidizing waters, and often is the limiting nutrient in low productivity tropical waters.…/oceancolor/galapagos.gif

  7. Report this comment

    Phillip Huggan said:

    It’s a nice tool in the arsenal, but geoengineering still seems like giving up. If it must be done, I’d still prefer things like painting roofs white and adding roof gardens. Or biotech research yielding plants with lighter hues.

    Solid-state hydrogen storage (and wind turbine fiscal help) is still the lowest hanging fruit; companies like Amminex and processes like hydrogen storage in zeolites need capital.

  8. Report this comment

    Phil Kithil said:

    I am CEO of Atmocean, Inc., which has built and ocean-tested several prototypes of our wave-driven ocean upwelling pump. It works. Upcoming is to evaluate the biogeochemistry and biological effects.

  9. Report this comment

    Dillon G. McMullen said:

    Subject: Response to Nature 449, 403 (27 September 2007) doi:10.1038/449403a; published online 26 September 2007

    Dear Sirs,

    We learned of Correspondence letter, “Ocean pipes could help the Earth to cure itself’” by James E Lovelock and

    Chris G. Rapley, on BBC World News. In the same global warming context, James Lovelock additionally emphasized

    the need for new process technology during USA radio NPR Science Friday on 28 September 2007. We also present a

    self-generating way to manage the Earth’s capacity to cure itself from fast warming. It is accessible and operating under

    proprietary ownership known as McMullen Process.

    However scientifically sound a pipe dream, inherent practical and economic reservations can be avoided. Much

    more remarkably, actual exorcization of gigatonnes of carbon, rather than carbon dioxide, is tried, true and achievable.

    A modular system designed for cumulative removal of solid carbon from fossil fuels and biomass has begun to actually

    reverse global warming and simultaneously produce net power. Solid carbon has been separated from the carbon cycle;

    from hydrogen and from oxygen in renewable carbohydrates.

    Renewable hydrogen entering the process contributes to that net power as a transformed component of gaseous and

    fractionally distilled liquid fuel products. All products then separately leave a closed-end system as combustible products,

    rather than products of combustion. Carbon dioxide and water are reproduced by combustion of only the gas and/or liquid


    Emitted carbon dioxide naturally recycles for cumulative solid carbon sequestration by the same alternative process.

    Manipulation of CO2 as an oxide gas having nearly four times that mass is avoided. Instead of carbon cap and trade, market

    of solid carbon as regenerated filter media, as fertilizer and other “endless black belt” value added products provides positive

    economics. And no production of additional nuclear waste.


    Frederick G. McMullen, P.E.

    Dillon G. McMullen

    Telephone USA: 715-297-4442

  10. Report this comment

    Iip said:

    I agree that we need to do some drastic actions to heal the earth. But, I doubt it can be done with involving of Bush Administration.

  11. Report this comment

    Mark said:

    It’s a great proposal. Practicality will be an interesting issue though. But it makes absolute sense, and unless we start experimenting now then we aren’t going to have any answers later.

    My only true concern is that high profile stories like this encourage many people to take a relaxed attitude to the issues in the belief that somebody else will take care of the problem. It certainly doesn’t encourage people to give up their SUVs..

  12. Report this comment

    David B. Benson said:

    SUVs are a triviality compared with coalfield fires. Here are some estimates for various sources of carbon being added to the active carbon cycle:

    coalfield fires (est. 4%)

    concrete production (3%)

    world’s ocean vessel fleet (2.7%)

    US car and light trucks (est. 2.5%)

    world’s airlines (2.2%)

    And yes, with some effort, the coalfield fires could all be extinguished…

  13. Report this comment

    Christian Antonio said:

    I would like to ask if the participants in this discussion have seen the Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle”?

    It is available for viewing at

    This documentary makes the argument that global warming is occuring, but that it is not anthropogenic. Rather, the warming is part of the normal climate cycle that the earth goes through. I am a biology student, not a climate scientist, so I would like ask climate scientists for their opinion

    on the arguments presented in this movie.

    Thanks very much.

  14. Report this comment

    Olive Heffernan said:

    Dear Christian,

    The Great Global Warming Swindle, unfortunately, does not represent current understanding of climate science and as such, misleads viewers on the cause of climate change.

    For a really comprehensive explanation of all of the main arguments put forward in the documentary and leading experts’ opinions on where the weight of scientific evidence lies, see ‘Is global warming a swindle?’ by the Royal Society at

  15. Report this comment

    simon said:

    If there is a way to avert global warming it must first be profitable and secondly cannot be allowed to negatively impact upon any other business. Lovelocks plan might just make him money, on the offset market and enable more polluting businesses to continue as usual. As to whether it will achieve the stated objective is beside the point, Kyoto hasn’t, carbon credit trees will not and hydrogen fuel will not replace petrol. Any plan just needs to make investors money while business as usual is allowed to carry on while the public is under the impression that a solution is possible. Even if the pipes are never installed what lovelock has already achieved is a global moment of hope.

  16. Report this comment

    pierre masci said:

    Isn’t it too dangerous…? Does anyone have any idea of what would happen to the marine ecosystems? No.

    By manipulating the Nature to optimize some criterion which are usefull for our lives (the Temperature for instance, or the speed at which we can move: think of all these cars…), we just kept on making Nature sick.

    Isn’t it a bad way to heal the Earth, to keep on with this “manipulating” strategy?

    Nature can heal itself (lets hope so…). If Nature needs a good cure, then we shall give it a good cure: no more CO2 rejections. If you are hurt you need to rest. So does our Planet.

    We all have to learn to live reasonably, and no technology can take that responsability away from us.

    I am really afraid of the consequences that this idea could have.

    I hope we will learn before it’s too late.

    Have a nice day =o)

    It’s a good day for becoming benevolent and responsible

  17. Report this comment

    Peter J. leb Williams said:

    Lovelock and Rapley (Nature, 449,403, 2007) put forward the idea that by pumping up nutrient rich deep oceanic water, the subsequent stimulation of planktonic photosynthetic production would give rise to a very significant drawdown atmospheric CO2. The concept is flawed scientifically on two accounts. Planktonic photosynthesis results in the assimilation of inorganic nitrogen and CO2 in a ratio which has a modal value in the region of 6.6 – the so-called Redfield ratio. A fraction of the organic particles that arise as a consequence of photosynthetic production, sink into the deeper parts of the ocean. The C/N ratio of these particles is somewhat higher than the Redfield ratio, as there is some fast decomposition of the nitrogen (and phosphorus) rich organic components before the particles reach deep water. The particles are eventually decomposed in the deeps, with the production in inorganic nutrients, along with CO2. If this water, now enriched in inorganic nitrogen (and phosphorus), were brought to the surface, it would indeed stimulate planktonic photosynthesis and result in the assimilation of CO2. However, the upwelled water is not only enriched in inorganic nitrogen but also CO2 produced at the same time, the latter being slightly in excess of the Redfield requirement due to the elevated C/N ratio of the settling particles. Thus, rather than drawing down atmospheric CO2 from the atmosphere, there would be export of CO2. The situation in fact would be worse, as the upwelled water would need to warm up (otherwise it would simply sink back again) this would reduce the solubility of CO2, resulting in further export of oceanic CO2 into the atmosphere.

    Further, from the engineering point of view the concept is infeasible – to lift up a 10m diameter column of dense (cold) to the surface would require a net lift of a number of tonnes and would almost certainly collapse a flexible tube or would cause a ribbed tube to concertina.

    Even if the engineering problems could be solved, and the system made cost effective, both of which seem very doubtful, the proposal would have the reverse effect of that claimed.

  18. Report this comment

    marilyn terrell said:

    The giant pipes idea seems pretty far-fetched, but growing algae by more ordinary means sounds tantalizing. From the National Geographic cover story on biofuels: "Algae not only reduce a plant’s global warming gases, but also devour other pollutants. Some algae make starch, which can be processed into ethanol; others produce tiny droplets of oil that can be brewed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Best of all, algae in the right conditions can double in mass within hours. While each acre of corn produces around 300 gallons (1,135 liters) of ethanol a year and an acre of soybeans around 60 gallons (227 liters) of biodiesel, each acre of algae theoretically can churn out more than 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of biofuel each year. "

  19. Report this comment

    William H. Calvin said:

    The wave-lift tubes, unlike iron fertilization, mimic a natural upwelling process that wind provides. You can, however, turn them off by latching the flipper valve.

    Sinking carbon to the ocean depths is indeed the name of the game. The zooplankton die and their shell sinks, taking CaCO3 down (some becomes limestone). The salps (several cm in size, not zooplankton at all) produce fecal pellets that are dense enough to sink to the depths before coming apart. They too take carbon out of circulation for millions of years.

    It seems to me that we need a lot more salps and that we ought to sequence their genome. We might be able to widen their “comfort zone” and thus extend their territory — all while inserting a gene switch that would allow their reproduction to be turned down.

  20. Report this comment

    Christopher D. Barry said:

    It is worth noting that Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) involves bringing copious amounts of water up from the deeps, though in this case, to use as a low temperature sink for a heat engine running on warmer surface water. It is important to determine if this works to sequester CO2, or if OTEC actually exacerbates carbon dioxide load into the atmosphere by bringing up dissolved CO2. It may also be possible to change the dynamics of this by some level of artificial fertilization.

    Christopher D. Barry, P.E. (WA, CA)

    Co-Chair, Ad Hoc Panel 17, Ocean Renewable Energy

    Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers,

    c/o United States Coast Guard Engineering Logistics Center (ELC-024)

    2401 Hawkins Point Road, Mail Stop 25

  21. Report this comment

    Justin G. said:

    A quick glance at the latest IPCC assessment report (Working groups I and III in particular, as well as the special report on carbon capture and storage) will disabuse anyone who thinks this is a sustainable solution.

  22. Report this comment

    Christopher Nankervis said:

    Dear Sirs,

    I am a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My thoughts on GeoEngineering are flipent. Don’t tamper with natures system until you are absolutely sure of the effects, even if it is the last resort.

    I happen to believe that a great deal of the recent warming is “natural”. The cloud forcing is in the order of 40W/m2 to 300W/m2. Scaling this with the 1.5W/m-2 forcing of carbon-dioxide doubling, anthropogenic forcings are very small. The heat and moisture input from the Pacific Ocean during a warm phase has a profound global impact, for example during a La Nina phase of the Southern Oscillation. I happen to think that the Ocean (especially the Pacific) can efficiently “pump” heat out of the system. There are examples of highly efficient “heat pumps”

    in the weather, one of these is a hurricane.

    Observations of the radiation budget are subject to great uncertainties, inter-satellite calibration errors, and long term instability issues. This said, the longwave emission does appear to have been increasing in line with the temperature rise over the tropics, whilst shortwave radiation has remained approximately fixed.

    I suggest an imbalanced approach to global warming / global cooling cycling in the climate, which may explain a lot of the warming of the previous 30 years, and a cool period up to the early 1970’s.

    Chaos Theories of emmergence and strange attractors, may mean that the climate can “switch” between cold and warm phases, almost independently of anthropogenic gases.

    The fact remains that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are putting the Earth’s system under a great deal of stress.

    It is possible that the lag-time for temperature rises in the atmosphere are greater than the IPCC, 2007 may indicate.

    This forms part of the 10% of the IPCC uncertainty.

    Take a good look at the material I present on my web-space. I believe that Earth’s complex system is a “perfect” system, and that therefore it is doing its best to counteract human intervention.

    Kind Regards,


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