Our oceans are Earth's largest active carbon sink. Carbon perpetually cycles between the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere, with significant quantities being captured and stored in the depths.
The name given to this carbon capture mechanism is blue carbon. Blue carbon capture absorbs and stores carbon dioxide significantly faster and more efficiently than terrestrial carbon sinks - like forests. So how do we reforest our ocean?
Phytoplankton or “microalgae” operate like many other plants - they absorb CO2 via photosynthesis, mostly while floating in the upper portions of the ocean. These organisms also absorb nitrates, phosphates and sulphur which they convert into proteins, fats and carbohydrates. These plants absorb around 4 times as much carbon dioxide as the Amazon Rainforest in a single year, and generate up to 85% of the oxygen in our atmosphere.
Phytoplankton are an essential food source for a wide range of sea creatures and form a considerable base of the marine food chain. Various fish populations keep phytoplankton populations down, marine apex predators, in turn keep the fish populations down. When dolphins and whales return to the surface to breathe, they fertilise the phytoplankton and regenerate growth to feed the middling fish populations. Harmony.
In a balanced ecosystem, phytoplankton is not given the opportunity to grow out of control into harmful blooms, but when intensive human practices upset the balance, by removing the middle and upper elements of the marine food chain - the blooms proliferate and can have harmful effects.
The truth of the matter is that human activity has drastically upset the balance of the ocean, large commercial fisheries are the main driver of marine ecosystem destruction. Some fish populations (halibut, bluefin tuna, haddock and cod) have plummeted to near extinction and if current industrial fishing trends continue, we could expect significant desertification of our oceans.
“Reforesting” the ocean requires a restoration of balance in the marine ecosystem. Fortunately, our oceans are tremendously resilient, and when given genuine respite from intensive industrial fishing practices, they restore themselves.
Experts believe that we must move to protect 30% of our oceans, advocating moves to achieve this by 2030. This target is gratefully ambitious and moves towards it will make a tremendous difference to the health of our planet - but the reality of marine conservation areas is depressing. Only 5% of the ocean is currently “protected” - but this figure is misleading because in over 90% of this 5%, fishing is still allowed. Realistically, less than 1% of our oceans are being regulated and protected against industrial fishing and oil drilling.
So how do we get there? How do we achieve this 30% by 2030? - The answer may lie in emerging technology alongside radical supportive policy shifts.
The oceans are enormous, their scale is both their greatest attribute and detriment - monitoring, policing and enforcing conservation is a wicked problem - perhaps this is why governments are reluctant to commit to protecting marine conservation areas in the first place. By using technology, such as high resolution satellite imagery, algorithmic monitoring and effective response measures - national and supranational resources could be far better focused towards combating criminal activity.
Artificial intelligence could be used to build and run complex models approximating time- intensive simulations to impact-fully inform policy makers of human effects on the oceans - so they may make better decisions for the use of government subsidies.
Perhaps a global data collaboration? By analysing biodiversity regeneration in a variety of genuinely protected marine areas, significant data collection could take place, from which valuable insights can be derived to inform best practice for the restoration of harmony to if not all, then 30% of our oceans. We mustn’t destroy our carbon sinks - lets reinvigorate our blue carbon capture.
Finally, carbon credit funding can be channelled to projects committed to afforestation, but forestry projects only work on lands that have been deforested. Can we convince these organisations, who already do wonderful work, to expand their portfolio? To reconsider the parameters so that funding can be given to organisations committed to reforesting and rebalancing our oceans?
Boonzaier, L., & Pauly, D, “Marine protection targets: An updated assessment of global progress.” Oryx, 50(1), 27-35, 2016
Ralph Chami, Thomas Cosimano, Connel Fullenkamp, and Sena Oztosun, “Natures Solution to Climate Change,” FINANCE & DEVELOPMENT, December 2019, VOL. 56, NO. 4
Cornelia Dean, “Study Sees ‘Global Collapse’ of Fish Species”, New York Times, November 2006
All views expressed on this blog post are the author's and do not necessarily reflect or represent the opinions of the AI for Climate Initiative or its founders.