UMaine Researcher Joins Group Examining Potential Iron Fertilization of Oceans – F. Chai

A University of Maine oceanographer is representing the university in a new consortium exploring the potential impact of iron fertilization of the oceans in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Fei Chai, a professor in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences and cooperative professor in UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, has joined the ISIS Consortium (ISIS stands for In Situ Iron Studies) which is made up of researchers from 12 universities and research centers around the world. The researchers are exploring the unknowns regarding the role of iron in regulating the ocean’s capacity to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The consortium announced this week its member institutions have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that recommends the support of open experiments and the independence of each participant.

“The consortium will provide opportunities for scientists to conduct research projects to address some important questions related to ocean’s role in regulating global carbon cycle, and impact of iron on marine ecosystems,” Chai says. “It will allow field scientists and modelers to work together to collect data and improve biogeochemical models. Also, this is an international consortium, so it will enhance collaborations with scientists from other countries. For example, I know many Chinese scientists who are interested in studying iron and carbon cycle in the ocean.”

Deliberate iron fertilization involves adding iron – usually chemical-grade iron sulfate – to an area of the ocean in order to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton. The microscopic organisms, which need iron to grow and survive, convert carbon dioxide in the ocean surface to organic carbon. When the phytoplankton die, they take a small amount of the carbon to ocean depths, where it can be sequestered for decades or even centuries.

Iron fertilization could spark plankton growth in large tracts of sunlit ocean that are iron deficient.

Previous studies conducted since 1993 have been limited in terms of spatial area, duration, and measurements made. ISIS was formed to conduct an international scientific appraisal of both positive and negative impacts of iron fertilization. Among the risks cited in a release from ISIS include environmental impacts and possible distraction from efforts to reduce industrial carbon emissions.

“We don’t understand lot of the issues, we therefore need to conduct a larger and longer scientific experiment to address those issues. We need to follow that carbon to see where it goes and how long does it stay there, what are the ecological consequences, intended and unintended. For me, personally, I’d like to see those observations and data improve models, and therefore we can make long-term predictions.”

In his work at UMaine, Chai studies the role of physical and biological processes in the carbon cycle, and how the biological pump transfers carbon into the deep ocean. Chai’s research group will use physical-biogeochemical models to help design the next generation of iron fertilization experiments. New iron fertilization experiments will cover a larger area than the previous experiments and track the iron patch with modern oceanography instruments, such as gliders, floats, remote sensing, along with modeling, to monitor the fate of carbon and impacts on marine ecosystems.

The consortium’s research projects will follow the international accepted practices regulating ocean iron fertilization research under the London Convention/London Protocol. Chai worked to develop those guidelines and recommendations.

Other participating institutions are the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Australia; National Oceanography Centre in the United Kingdom; Moss Land Marine Laboratories in California; Netherlands Institute for Sea Research; University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Massachusetts Boston; University of Plymouth Marine Institute; University of Rhode Island; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Xiamen University in China.

As UMaine’s representative to ISIS, Chai says he will keep UMaine faculty members including Mary Jane Perry and Mark Wells, who also study the role of iron in regulating biological productivity and carbon cycle, informed of the consortium’s work.

For more information about the consortium, go to