Vail Symposium discussion explores solutions to climate change in our oceans |

Vail Symposium discussion explores solutions to climate change in our oceans

The ocean helps regulate climate and weather and takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Joel Vodell/Unsplash
  • IF YOU GO...
    • What: Vail Symposium’s Zoom meeting, titled 'Exploring Our Oceans with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution'
    • When: 6-7 p.m. Thursday
    • For more:

Thursday evening, guest Peter de Menocal will lead Vail Symposium’s free Zoom meeting, “Exploring Our Oceans with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.”

Though the topic of climate change is nearly as vast as the ocean, Menocal, a paleoclimatologist and oceanographer, will summarize how the ocean already functions as the life-support system of our planet by helping regulate climate and weather and taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Most people are not familiar with the fact that we live on an ocean planet. The ocean makes up 71% of the Earth’s surface, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla  … buffering us from the ongoing climate crisis,” Menocal said.

While the ocean naturally absorbs, so to speak, a third to a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions (or, three to four months of global emissions per year), last year, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned “of chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decades,” and said, “that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limited warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees will be beyond reach.”

The report states that “emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1 degree Celsius of warming since 1850-1900, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.”

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Solutions are already in place, in terms of decarbonizing the economy by how humans generate energy, use transportation and the like.

“We’re starting to bend the curve on emissions — the rate of increase is declining,” Menocal said. “We are making progress, but it’s far too slow.”

And that’s where the ocean, as well as other technologies, come into play.

Currently, a factory in Iceland is using huge fans to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, liquify it and transform it into rock. While Menocal applauds this, it can only remove 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That may sound like a lot, but globally, humans produce 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide, so this technology effectively results in removing three seconds of annual emissions, Menocal said.

Another beneficial idea involves planting 100 million trees, and while Menocal also appreciates this intervention, he said “again, we need more,” because that only equates to removing a half hour of global emissions annually.

The ocean’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere shows promise, because the entire excess of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would make up only 1% of the carbon reservoir of the ocean, he said.

“The ocean has tremendous carbon capacity, but one of the questions is: Is it the right thing to do, or is this causing harm?” Menocal said.

As president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (the largest private nonprofit made up of about a thousand employees devoted to understanding the global ocean through science and innovative technology), he’s overseeing a $100 million project called the Ocean Vital Signs Network. This program will monitor ocean health and its carbon dioxide uptake.

“Today, we’re flying blind. We have no such measurements for the ocean,” he said. “This will allow us to keep track of our ‘patient’ and provide a sandbox to deploy and explore these technologies in the ocean. By better understanding the ocean, it provides a much better and scalable and proactive way of meeting the climate challenge.”

Three main technologies are being studied right now: growing seaweed, which produces its tissues from hydrocarbon, and sinking it to the bottom of the ocean; employing soluble iron to make oceans more productive in taking up carbon dioxide through algae, which sinks to the ocean; and managing the ocean’s increasing acidity (as a result of taking up carbon dioxide) by adding alkalinity to it.

“They have all been proven to work in the ocean at a small scale, but none have been deployed at scale,” he said.

He’s committed to ethical and equitable approaches that prove these interventions do not harm the ocean — or at least cause less harm than what the ocean would experience without the interventions, he said.

“We’re acting as the carbon cops for the ocean, protecting the health of the ocean and monitoring the health of the ocean,” he said.

Thursday, he will discuss the potential the ocean holds for providing solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges.

“The most important thing I hope (viewers get) is that big institutions are stepping up to meet the climate challenge,” he said. “It’s not sufficient to report how bad things are going to be. It’s a real opportunity to step up with solutions.”

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