Ocean-Saving Innovations

By Kary Vannice

The Eye has published any number of articles on threats faced by our oceans – here’s a review of progress achieved with the use of innovative technologies.

Restoring Our Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are critical underwater ecosystems that contribute to the overall health of our planet, not to mention the global economy. Coral reefs are major harbingers of biodiversity. Even though they occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, they are home to more than 25% of all marine life. And more than 500 million people worldwide rely on reefs for their livelihood, food, and protection from natural disaster. Economically speaking, the value of coral reefs is around $7 billion US annually.

Because of their environmental and economic importance, protecting, regenerating, and restoring ocean reefs has become a major driver of scientific innovation and design. Australian researchers have recently tested two very innovative ideas to help regenerate the Great Barrier Reef, one above the water and one below.

Hoping to prevent the coral from dying out, a team of scientists created a special turbine that sprays microscopic sea particles into the sky above a reef. This fine mist creates a cloudlike shadow over the reef, which cools the water temperature below. The idea is to use this technique during heatwaves to protect the delicate habitat below from what’s known as “coral bleaching,” which puts the coral under extreme stress and often leads to its death.

Another team of Australian scientists has been testing a unique theory based on sound. They recognized that the more damaged a reef was, the less noise it produced. So, they began playing the sounds of a healthy reef over a loudspeaker underwater in an unhealthy reef location to see if it would have any beneficial effects. After a 40-day “acoustic enrichment” experiment, the number of fish within that section of the reef doubled, and the number of other species increased by 50%.

Cleaning Up Fossil Fuels

Over the last few decades, social and political pressures have forced major oil companies to clean up their act and work to prevent large-scale oil spillage. But a “hidden” pollutant may pose an even bigger problem in this area. In September, the US-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report that said land-based runoff is up to 20 times higher than it was 20 years ago. Most of that runoff comes from highways, parking lots, vehicle washing, and vehicle fluid leaks that find their way into local streams and rivers that eventually run into our oceans.

With this kind of rapidly increasing pollution, cleaning fossil fuels out of our oceans is quickly becoming an environmental priority.

In May of this year, a team of Mexican scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) made the news with a new technique that can be used to clean oil and other substances, like fertilizers, out of the oceans.

The team created nanotubes made from a combination of an aluminosilicate clay mineral (halloysite) and a highly magnetic mineral (magnetite). Once the nanotubes are deployed, they can apply a magnetic field and essentially “pull out” the oil. Their project leader, Marina Vargas Rodriguez, explained, “If the spill occurs near the beach, we will have the option of pulling the contaminant into the open sea so that it does not affect our beaches and, at the same time, the oil can be recovered and reused.”

This new technology does not adversely affect marine wildlife, and once the oil is recovered, it can be reused, so it does not go to waste.

Addressing Acidification

The ocean naturally absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) from our atmosphere. Industrial activity has steadily increased the amount of CO2 in our air, which means the ocean now absorbs significantly more than historically normal levels. As CO2 dissolves into the ocean, it combines with seawater and becomes carbonic acid. This changes the pH of the water and acidifies our oceans.

A Newfoundland-based non-profit called GreenWave has developed a system of ocean farming that regenerates underwater ecosystems by creating carbon and nitrogen sinks. This trapping of excess carbon and nitrogen helps to reduce ocean acidification. This innovative underwater framing model focuses on vertical farming of scallops, mussels, oysters, and clams, all for human consumption, and seaweed that is turned into animal feed, fertilizers, and plastic alternatives.

This project not only helps to reduce acidification, but it also produces environmentally friendly farmed shellfish and other organic byproducts to help reduce environmental pollutants like chemical fertilizers and single-use plastics.

Another, perhaps less practical, but equally innovative attempt at acidification reduction comes from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Vesta. With a team of scientists with a range of disciplines, Vesta proposes to cover 2% of the world’s beaches with crushed olivine – the area required to offset 100% of human CO2 emissions. Olivine is a green volcanic mineral that naturally absorbs CO2, which means it’s basically an air purifier, naturally sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky and ocean, locking it inside, and eventually becoming part of beneficial marine environments such as coral reefs.

Olivine can absorb up to 1.25 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of olivine, but this process normally takes millions of years. However, Vesta researchers theorize that if they grind the olivine into a fine sand and distribute it on beaches, wave action can accelerate the process and help reduce acidification more quickly. There are already four strikingly green olivine beaches that occur naturally in Hawaii, the Galápagos Islands, Guam and Norway.

These are just a few of the thousands of innovative projects focused on saving our ocean ecosystems. If you’re interested in learning more about creative innovations that aim to solve our current climate crisis, you can check out the World Economic Forum’s open innovation platform, https://uplink.weforum.org/uplink/s/, which facilitates entrepreneurial “positive systemic change for people and the planet.”