7 solutions for restoring Earth’s oceans
Since the industrial age, human civilisation has had a significantly detrimental impact on Earth’s oceans. With problems such as ocean acidification, overfishing, plastic pollution and global warming, it’s clear that big changes need to be made in order to preserve our oceans – which are essential for sustaining life on Earth.
In order to avoid an impending disaster, mankind simply cannot continue along the same path as it has the last few centuries. It has been suggested that, by 2050, all large fish could be removed from the oceans. This would be cataclysmic. Millions of communities around the globe require fish to sustain themselves, and with an expanding human population, the results could be unthinkable.
It has actually been suggested that by 2050, we could have oceans that contain more plastic waste than fish! That’s a scary thought, since plastic pollution has increased by 20% since 1964, resulting in 311 million tonnes by 2014. By 2050, this amount is very likely to have quadrupled. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is already visible from space, causing a huge problem for wildlife. Birds are already mistaking small plastic pieces for plankton, and it’s been documented that Laysan albatross parents are feeding their children plastic, which clogs their stomachs and forces them to starve. Deep sea fish also consume the plastic, and if they eventually end up on someone’s dinner plate, it will be detrimental to human health too.
Fortunately, the destruction of our oceans is a problem that people are beginning to take seriously. In recent years, a number of innovative solutions have been proposed and implemented. Some solutions are rather far fetched while others could be truly revolutionary – we intend to cover both in this article! Here are 10 of the most interesting solutions currently on the horizon for restoring Earth’s oceans – and therefore saving the planet.
1 – Drones
Whether you’ve heard about them due to amateur drone racing competitions or are concerned about them being used by the government to curtail privacy, drones are a hot topic right now. Whatever your opinion is on the technology, it may play an important role in safeguarding our oceans. Drones are affordable to manufacture and learning to pilot them is not difficult. Because of these two factors, this could dramatically improve the surveillance of Earth’s oceans, preventing people from illegally dumping pollution where it shouldn’t be dumped.
Drones could also monitor poaching, particularly illegal whaling operations which have been a source of controversy in recent years. Numerous drones could be deployed to cover large bodies of water and return quality samples to be tested, negating the need (and cost) for humans to be deployed. This would give us constant feedback as to the state of our oceans and would alert us to any contaminants, such as oil spillages, so effective action could be immediately taken to mitigate the damages.
In fact, an underwater drone known as Hydroswarm has been innovated by MIT student, Sampriti Bhattacharyya. Hydroswarm drones are autonomous and dwell underwater, collecting data which could be extremely important in monitoring the world’s oil and gas industries. These drones could also be used in combination with traditional aerial drones to collect more comprehensive maritime data. Sampriti Bhattacharyya states her mission is to map the world’s oceans so that we can better understand how to preserve them.
She initially came up with the idea after being shocked that there was no technology to find the missing Malaysian airline flight #MH370. This later developed into a concept which could revolutionise our understanding of the oceans – areas which are not commonly in the public consciousness. She exclaims: “Hydroswarm is providing a technology platform that can fundamentally change the way we understand and explore our oceans.”
2 – OTEC
Otherwise known as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, OTEC uses the ocean’s thermal gradient in order to generate clean energy. If a clean renewable energy resource like this becomes widely available in its full capacity, the harmful fossil-fuel burning industries will no longer be required, which will benefit the oceans tremendously.
However, there are also direct benefits from implementing OTEC. For instance, fresh water is a byproduct of OTEC, and a small 1 MW OTEC plant is capable of producing approximately 4,500 cubic meters of fresh water per day. This is adequate for a population of 20,000 to live on.
In certain parts of the ocean, there is a significant temperature difference between the warm surface and the cold depths. This gradient can be leveraged by an offshore,OTEC plant to generate huge quantities of electricity with no carbon footprint. Oceans comprise approximately 70% of Earth’s surface, and since they capture so much sunlight every day, this essentially makes them the largest solar panel the world has ever known. Although the thermal efficiency is low, the technology is still in its infancy and developments are constantly being made to increase the amount of power generated.
3 – 3D printing
Many have speculated how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could be repurposed into something that could benefit mankind and save the environment simultaneously. One proposition involves 3D printing, a technology which enables people to create a digital blueprint of an object using CAD software, and then additively construct the physical object, layer by layer. The advantage of this technology is that it is less wasteful, more cost effective, works excellently for creating complex/intricate objects and works with a wide range of materials. Many fantastic things have been spawned from 3D printers, including food, artwork and even architecture.
Recently, it was announced that Adidas used plastic recovered from the ocean to 3D print the midsole of one of their new shoes. However, this isn’t the first time that people have applied 3D printing to solving the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans. In 2014, it was announced that Plastic Bank had 3D printed an item using plastic filament which was made from reclaimed ocean waste. Since then, the team have set to install a centre in some of the world’s most impoverished communities where people can exchange their recovered plastic waste for money and see it transformed into a brand new object using a 3D printer.
On his travels, David Katz, the founder of the project, was horrified by just how much plastic waste he saw littering the beaches and waterways of the developing world. By erecting centres for repurposing plastic, this would not only help to clear the world from plastic pollution (which is famously nonbiodegradable), but would also provide people with new skills as they’re taught to operate the 3D printing machinery. The goal would be for these centres to be completely self-sustaining. The Plastic Bank 3D printer was developed with help from top engineers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and it can be used to create a variety of small components which have monetary value in the developing world.
While planning to launch a pilot of this project in Lima, Peru, where only 2% of plastic is recycled, David Katz remarked about the local community: “The more plastic they collect, the more they can lift themselves out of poverty. And the more plastic that is collected, the more that will be removed from our waterways.”
4 – The Ocean Cleanup Array
Another potential solution to the diabolical levels of plastic pollution in the oceans is the Ocean Cleanup Array. While diving in Greece in 2014, teenager and self-described geek, Boyan Slat, was appalled at the fact he came across more plastic underwater than fish!
Determined to find a resolution to this problem, Slat concurred that traditional methods for removing plastic from the ocean were ineffective. Usually, boats with nets would be used to catch plastic – but this is not scalable when you factor in the sheer levels of plastic pollution.
Instead, Slat theorised an alternative solution. It would involve a network of long floating barriers that would passively collect plastic pollution due to the ocean currents. This would save vast amounts of money, manpower and emissions. Next, the plastic would be moved to a central location and then exported for recycling.
The project’s initial feasibility study indicates that a 100 kilometer-long array could remove 42% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the course of 10 years. Additionally, the recycled plastic could be resold at a cost which would more than cover the cleanup operation, making it both environmentally beneficial and profitable – the best of both worlds! Slat’s plan is so far fetched that it could actually work, and it appears that plenty of people have faith in him. After a 98 day crowdfunding campaign, Slat was able to raise over 2 million USD, making it the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign in history.
The next stage is to scale-up the testing and deploy a fully operational array within the next year. The test is set to take place in the waters of Tsushima Island, an island situated between Japan and Korea, and with a severe pollution problem.
The 6,561ft trial system is set to be the largest floating structure in existence, and will provide valuable data regarding the feasibility of the final version. Importantly, aquatic life will be able to pass safely underneath the system’s buffers while plastic will be caught on the surface. By 2020, the full execution is expected to take place. Slat’s Ted Talk is truly inspirational and must be watched for further information about the project.
5 – Offshore aquaculture
There are a number of negative consequences to traditional industrial fish farming, particularly for the environment. For instance, research performed on salmon farms in Scotland concluded that huge amounts of chemical, biological, organic, and inorganic waste are produced by these farms. Evidence suggests that salmon farms produce the amount of nitrogen waste equal to a human population of more than nine million people! Chemical pollution is another factor, as salmon farm sewage may eventually work its way up the food chain, reaching and contaminating humans.
Additionally, diseases and parasites can escape into coastal waterways, contaminating wildlife far beyond the geographical limitations of the farm itself. Sea lice infestations are a particularly prevalent problem for salmon farms, with open net farms often being decimated on numerous occasions. Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) spread like wildfire over a number of salmon farms in Chile, leading to outbreaks of the disease in humans. Since Earth’s human population is expanding rapidly, industrial fish farming is still a necessity. However, innovations are being made to prevent the oceans from being contaminated and to ensure non-toxic fish end up on people’s dinner tables. The most significant change is moving fish farms offshore. This is also known as open water aquaculture.
Aquaculture company, Kampachi Farms, have pioneered the Velella Project, which involves raising fish in a spherical object called an Aquapod, far away from shores and attached to a tether vessel. This holds numerous advantages over traditional fish farming processes. Firstly, because the Aquapod will not remain stationary, this means that the waste produced by the fish would not accumulate in one particular location, reducing the toxicity of specific regions.
Also, the fish raised would be native to the area, so in the case of an escape, there would be no risk of the farmed fish mating with the wild fish and disrupting the ecosystem (as has been the case in the past). The Aquapod is specifically designed to prevent leakages and stay durable even in the harsh ocean conditions.
The initial trial of this project yielded very impressive results, with 98% of the fish surviving. The fish also reached the ideal size for harvesting in only half the time initially anticipated. It has been suggested that this technology could reach the mass market within the next 10-15 years. Neil Sims, who pioneered the project, states: “The Velella beta test showed us that the biological performance of fish in a drifter cage system is astonishing.”
6 – Offshore algae farms
While most people are aware that plantlife is essential for removing carbon dioxide from the air and creating oxygen, the most important oxygen generator in the world is actually underwater – in the form of algae. It has been estimated that between 70 to 80% of the oxygen we breathe comes from algae, and if you consider that oceans cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface, this figure begins to make sense. Although we can’t see algae, it is responsible for our life on Earth, so to destroy algae via ocean pollution would be akin to committing suicide. Additionally, marine life requires algae as a food source and algae is actually in many foods for humans as well.
NASA is working on a project to generate renewable energy by growing algae in floating plastic bags on offshore farms. As algae can process ammonia and phosphates present in wastewater, these algae farms could clean up sewage and create fresh water, purifying Earth’s oceans as a result. As the algae pods grow fat from processing sewage, they would produce oil which can used as fuel and even sold at a profit. For a comparison, soybeans produce 50 gallons of oil per acre per year, while palms create around 600 gallons. Some forms of algae can produce at least 2,000 gallons of oil per acre per year!
This project would require less land than traditional algae farms and would bypass the energy-intensive cooling systems required to sustain them. Dr Jonathan Trent, a specialist in biological oceanography who is spearheading the project, suggests that offshore algae farms could be used in symbiosis with coastal cities, cleanly processing waste and restoring it to the cities as fuel. His Ted Talk provides a more in-depth discussion of the technological details of the project. In an interview with Algae Industry Magazine, he states:
“I’m passionate about algae, I’m passionate about the oceans, I’m passionate about the environment and I’m passionate about finding a way forward for the growing population of human beings that is sensitive to the environment and responsible on the global scale. Above all, I’m passionate about finding a sustainable, carbon-neutral energy supply and I think algae can be part of that supply.”
7 – Advanced ocean acidification monitoring devices
The increasing acidification of the ocean is due to high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is directly caused by fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. Coral reefs – which give life to entire aquatic ecosystems and provide food/income to human populations – are especially under threat. It has been estimated that we will need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 350 million ppm. Currently, we are already at 400ppm and things are expected to get even worse.
While new legislation is going to be required to curtail human activities which actively contribute to the acidification of the ocean, actually being able to make accurate assessments of the ocean’s pH levels will be necessary to inform such legislation. This is currently a problem as pH is not directly measured, meaning we have to rely on crude estimates instead. However, technological advances are being made in order to construct sensors which are easy to use and that will provide direct pH recordings.
As a response to this problem, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health Competition was launched in order to find: “A breakthrough pH sensor that will catalyze our ability to measure—and thus respond to—ocean acidification”. One of the top 3 teams, Durafet, have already successfully been using their innovative sensor to record oceanic data from the Antarctic, as part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling Program, otherwise known as SOCCOM. Attached to robotic floats, these sensors have been recording ocean pressure, temperature, salinity, nitrates, oxygen and acidity – all of which provide invaluable insights into climate change and ocean degradation.
Interestingly, these floats are battery powered, require no human operation and can take recordings for up to five years. This results in a much lower carbon footprint than taking recordings using a ship. They are also designed to withstand the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the ocean, meaning they function 365 days a year in all weather conditions, allowing more comprehensive data to be recorded.
This advanced technology is excellent for recording data from specific oceanic regions, but for a wider assessment of oceanic acidification (on a global scale), we would need to move away from direct measurements and go back to estimates. Fortunately, new technologies are making estimates far more accurate, particularly satellite-based recording technologies.
New techniques involve mounting satellites with thermal cameras to measure temperature and microwave sensors to measure salinity. By cross referencing the data, this can give a good indicator of the level of acidification of a large body of water. This assessment can then be verified with precise data via the float technologies used by SOCCOM. When new advanced technologies such as these converge, they will hopefully help us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge regarding ocean acidification – allowing us to formulate better plans of action to prevent it in the future.
The oceans need our support
In order for these technologies to be successful, they need support. One of the easiest ways to provide support is via donations. The Ocean Cleanup Array, which many consider to be the most viable option for cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch, have a donation form on their site. However, time is just as valuable as money. Plastic Bank encourage people to jump on social media and ask their favourite brands to consider using recycled plastic, using the hashtag #socialplastic. Giving them a like on Facebook also helps them to spread the message about their cause.
Ultimately, in order to win the fight against oceanic destruction, ordinary people and scientists alike have to come together to bring new technologies to market and prevent harmful industries (such as gas and oil drilling) from laying waste to the environment. While not everyone has the knowledge and ability to conceptualise and execute a gigantic array which relies on the ocean’s currents to recycle plastic, everyone can do their bit to raise awareness of the issues at hand.
You can start by making the commitment to use less plastic products and drink water from the tap instead (using a water filter removes impurities and improves the taste). Recycle where possible and volunteer your services at your nearest beach to help clean the place up. September 17th is the annual Coastal Cleanup event – click here to find out more.
Show your support by eating at sustainable seafood restaurants, and if you see an endangered species on the menu, don’t be afraid to speak up about it and inform the establishment about the far reaching consequences of killing such species. Remember, human life is inextricably entwined with the life of the ocean, so taking steps (however small) to save the oceans is also taking steps to saving humanity!