After Dan Whaley sold his travel website for $750 million in 2000, he spent his time and money exploring the world. He biked solo across the U.S. He lived with Tibetan refugees in Nepal. He drove from California to Argentina. Now he's on a new mission that combines his passions: saving the world…by geo-engineering it.
Whaley's start-up, Climos, is spearheading a program to remove CO2 from the atmosphere through a process called Ocean Iron Fertilization.The idea is to add iron to iron-limited parts of the ocean in order to facilitate the growth of phytoplankton, which absorbs CO2. Climos already has the backing of heavy-hitter venture capitalists and scientists from the National Science Foundation to Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal. Some say it's bad - if not crazy - science. A Greenpeace ocean specialist calls the plan "dangerous and irresponsible."Others say it must be taken seriously.
Whaley is the guy at the center of all this, and oceanography is in his genes. His chief science officer at Climos is his mother, Dr. Margaret Leinen, formerly the assistant Director for Geosciences at the National Science Foundation. A autodidactic computer programmer, Whaley coded one of the first software systems to detect reversals of the earth's magnetic pole in cryogenically cooled deep-sea sediment samples for the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. He has also participated in two NSF-funded Joint Global Ocean Flux Study cruises in the Equatorial Pacific where he helped run a piston-coring apparatus to obtain seafloor samples along the Tahiti-Hawaii transect.
Based in San Francisco, Whaley’s now traveling the world meeting with scientists and regulators to pave the way for ocean fertilization. But the road is already littered with the one other start-up that went down this path. A couple months before Climos launched, an ocean-seeding start-up called Planktos suspended its project citing “a highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders [that] has provoked widespread opposition to plankton restoration in the environmental world.” While Planktos failed to raise funds, Whaley has already secured $3.5 million. His success comes in no small part to his family’s background, his Silicon Valley contacts, and his persuasive skills. “It’s about science first, but it’s also about perception, and people have to really trust that you’re trying to do this in the right way,” he says. “Part of how they think about science has to do with how they feel about the way you’re going about things.” The first project is aimed for the southern oceans, mostly likely near Argentina, Brazil, or Australia.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.