Read the full story from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.
In the course of five years, citizens who went on sailing cruises to the Arctic surveyed and collected plastic debris that had washed up on the shores of Svalbard. This has now been analyzed. According to the findings, one third of the plastic debris which still bore imprints or labels allowing an analysis of their origin came from Europe, and much of that number from Germany.
Developing new and improved forms of cloud seeding has taken on a greater urgency in recent years. Severe drought around the world, worsened by the steady progression of climate change, has sparked a growing interest in innovative forms of water management from researchers, governments and corporate giants.
Cloud seeding can be relatively cheap compared with other water management strategies, like desalination, a chemical process that removes salts and other minerals from water to make it safe for drinking.
But there’s a catch. It’s notoriously difficult to design experiments that demonstrate how well the technology actually works (Climatewire, March 16, 2021).
Over the past year, there have been significant policy advances related to the US bioeconomy—the part of the economy driven by the life sciences and biotech, and enabled by engineering, computing, and information science. The bioeconomy includes a wide range of products and processes, from mRNA vaccines and drought-resistant crops to microbial fertilizers and bioindustrial fermentation. Rapid advances in biotechnology tools and capabilities have expanded the possibilities for bio-based products, and the U.S. government is looking for ways that it can best support this burgeoning sector of the economy. In addition to several reports and recommendations from outside experts and committees, action within federal government agencies has been spurred by the September 2022 Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy (EO 14081) and by the CHIPS and Science Act signed into law in August 2022.
Two key areas of discussion for federal government policy on the bioeconomy are:
Measurement and Language: How should the U.S. government quantify, measure, and track the size and shape of the bioeconomy? What “counts” as part of the bioeconomy?
Financial and Economic Tools: How can government funding be most effective at seeding long-term growth in the bioeconomy? What criteria should be used to prioritize?
To generate ideas and support discussion related to bioeconomy policy, FAS hosted two half-day, multi-stakeholder, discussion-based workshops on December 5 and December 7, 2022, focused on these topics. Each workshop included representatives and experts from academia, industry, non-governmental organizations, and the U.S. government.
Driving through Yolo County, you’ll see the expected wide expanses of farmland. That’s nothing unusual for an agricultural area like this one, but Heather Nichols has an eye for one particularly interesting feature that others might miss: Hedgerows.
These rows of California native trees and shrubs are planted strategically alongside farmland. As the executive director of the county’s resource conservation district, Nichols has gotten familiar with their history.
“All these big fields have trees around them,” said Nichols, gesturing at them as she drives by. “That’s not always the case in agriculture, right? Sometimes it’s just crops and nothing else.”
In the past, these rows have been used by farmers for a variety of reasons. They can offer habitat for animals and attract pollinators, for example.
But while hedgerows have been around for a long time — centuries in Europe and introduced in recent decades to California — they’re now looked at through a new lens. Nichols said that they’re particularly good at sequestering carbon. All woody vegetation, trees and shrubs included, draw in and sequester carbon, even helping store that carbon in the soil around them.
Trekking along the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake — the largest remaining saltwater lake in the western hemisphere — can feel eerie and lonely.
“These might even be my footprints from last week,” says Carly Biedul, pointing to indents in the mud. Biedul is a biologist with the Great Salt Lake Institute. She’s bundled up in an orange puffy jacket, gloves and hat. Most important she’s wearing thick, sturdy, rubber boots.
The mud with a frozen, slick layer of ice on top gets treacherous. One thing that’s hard to prepare for though, is the stench: a pungent odor like sulfur and dead fish. But it’s actually a good thing, a sign of a biologically healthy saline lake.
“People have been saying that they miss the lake stink because it just makes them feel like home,” Biedul says. “It’s just not here [much] anymore, so you’re lucky that it gets to smell so bad.”
Lucky? Maybe one small bright spot in an otherwise grim story of a looming ecological disaster. The lake doesn’t really stink anymore because it’s drying … and dying.
Global emissions have continued to burn through the carbon budget, meaning each year brings us closer to having put enough CO2 in the atmosphere that we’ll be committed to over 2°C of warming. That makes developing carbon-capture technology essential, both to bring atmospheric levels down after we overshoot and to offset emissions from any industries we struggle to decarbonize.
But so far, little progress has been made toward carbon capture beyond a limited number of demonstration projects. That situation is beginning to change, though, as some commercial ventures start to either find uses for the carbon dioxide or offer removal as a service for companies with internal emissions goals. And the Biden administration recently announced its intention to fund several large capture facilities.
But I recently visited a very different carbon-capture facility, one that’s small enough to occupy the equivalent of a handful of parking spaces in the basement of a New York City apartment tower. Thanks to a local law, it’s likely to be the first of many. CarbonQuest, the company that installed it, already has commitments from several more buildings, and New York City’s law is structured so that the inducement to install similar systems will grow over time.
Deep below the ocean surface, the light fades into a twilight zone where whales and fish migrate and dead algae and zooplankton rain down from above. This is the heart of the ocean’s carbon pump, part of the natural ocean processes that capture about a third of all human-produced carbon dioxide and sink it into the deep sea, where it remains for hundreds of years.
There may be ways to enhance these processes so the ocean pulls more carbon out of the atmosphere to help slow climate change. Yet little is known about the consequences.
Peter de Menocal, a marine paleoclimatologist and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, discussed ocean carbon dioxide removal at a recent TEDxBoston:Planetary Stewardship event. In this interview, he dives deeper into the risks and benefits of human intervention and describes an ambitious plan to build a vast monitoring network of autonomous sensors in the ocean to help humanity understand the impact.
First, what is ocean carbon dioxide removal, and how does it work in nature?
The ocean is like a big carbonated beverage. Although it doesn’t fizz, it has about 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere. So, for taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it someplace where it won’t continue to warm the planet, the ocean is the single biggest place it can go.
Ocean carbon dioxide removal, or ocean CDR, uses the ocean’s natural ability to take up carbon on a large scale and amplifies it.
Carbon gets into the ocean from the atmosphere in two ways.
In the first, air dissolves into the ocean surface. Winds and crashing waves mix it into the upper half-mile or so, and because seawater is slightly alkaline, the carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean.
The second involves the biologic pump. The ocean is a living medium – it has algae and fish and whales, and when that organic material is eaten or dies, it gets recycled. It rains down through the ocean and makes its way to the ocean twilight zone, a level around 650 to 3300 feet (roughly 200 to 1,000 meters) deep.
The ocean twilight zone sustains biologic activity in the oceans. It is the “soil” of the ocean where organic carbon and nutrients accumulate and are recycled by microbes. It is also home to the largest animal migration on the planet. Each day trillions of fish and other organisms migrate from the depths to the surface to feed on plankton and one another, and go back down, acting like a large carbon pump that captures carbon from the surface and shunts it down into the deep oceans where it is stored away from the atmosphere.
Why is ocean CDR drawing so much attention right now?
Because of its volume and carbon storage potential, the ocean is really the only arrow in our quiver that has the ability to take up and store carbon at the scale and urgency required.
A 2022 report by the national academies outlined a research strategy for ocean carbon dioxide removal. The three most promising methods all explore ways to enhance the ocean’s natural ability to take up more carbon.
The first is ocean alkalinity enhancement. The oceans are salty – they’re naturally alkaline, with a pH of about 8.1. Increasing alkalinity by dissolving certain powdered rocks and minerals makes the ocean a chemical sponge for atmospheric CO2.
A second method adds micronutrients to the surface ocean, particularly soluble iron. Very small amounts of soluble iron can stimulate greater productivity, or algae growth, which drives a more vigorous biologic pump. Over a dozen of these experiments have been done, so we know it works.
Third is perhaps the easiest to understand – grow kelp in the ocean, which captures carbon at the surface through photosynthesis, then bale it and sink it to the deep ocean.
I’m not advocating for any one of these, or for ocean CDR more generally. But I do believe accelerating research to understand the impacts of these methods is essential. The ocean is essential for everything humans depend on – food, water, shelter, crops, climate stability. It’s the lungs of the planet. So we need to know if these ocean-based technologies to reduce carbon dioxide and climate risk are viable, safe and scalable.
You’ve talked about building an ‘internet of the ocean’ to monitor changes there. What would that involve?
The ocean is changing rapidly, and it is the single biggest cog in Earth’s climate engine, yet we have almost no observations of the subsurface ocean to understand how these changes are affecting the things we care about. We’re basically flying blind at a time when we most need observations. Moreover, if we were to try any of these carbon removal technologies at any scale right now, we wouldn’t be able to measure or verify their effectiveness or assess impacts on ocean health and ecosystems.
So, we are leading an initiative at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to build the world’s first internet for the ocean, called the Ocean Vital Signs Network. It’s a large network of moorings and sensors that provides 4D eyes on the oceans – the fourth dimension being time – that are always on, always connected to monitor these carbon cycling processes and ocean health.
Right now, there is about one ocean sensor in the global Argo program for every patch of ocean the size of Texas. These go up and down like pogo sticks, mostly measuring temperature and salinity.
We envision a central hub in the middle of an ocean basin where a dense network of intelligent gliders and autonomous vehicles measure ocean properties including carbon and other vital signs of ocean and planetary health. These vehicles can dock, repower, upload data they’ve collected and go out to collect more. The vehicles would be sharing information and making intelligent sampling decisions as they measure the chemistry, biology and environmental DNA for a volume of the ocean that’s really representative of how the ocean works.
Having that kind of network of autonomous vehicles, able to come back in and power up in the middle of the ocean from wave or solar or wind energy at the mooring site and send data to a satellite, could launch a new era of ocean observing and discovery.
Does the technology needed for this level of monitoring exist?
We’re already doing much of this engineering and technology development. What we haven’t done yet is stitch it all together.
For example, we have a team that works with blue light lasers for communicating in the ocean. Underwater, you can’t use electromagnetic radiation as cellphones do, because seawater is conductive. Instead, you have to use sound or light to communicate underwater.
This summer, 2023, an experiment in the North Atlantic called the Ocean Twilight Zone Project will image the larger functioning of the ocean over a big piece of real estate at the scale at which ocean processes actually work.
We’ll have acoustic transceivers that can create a 4D image over time of these dark, hidden regions, along with gliders, new sensors we call “minions” that will be looking at ocean carbon flow, nutrients and oxygen changes. “Minions” are basically sensors the size of a soda bottle that go down to a fixed depth, say 1,000 meters (0.6 miles), and use essentially an iPhone camera pointing up to take pictures of all the material floating down through the water column. That lets us quantify how much organic carbon is making its way into this old, cold deep water, where it can remain for centuries.
That’s a game-changer. The results can help establish the effectiveness and ground rules for using CDR. It’s a Wild West out there – nobody is watching the oceans or paying attention. This network makes observation possible for making decisions that will affect future generations.
Do you believe ocean CDR is the right answer?
Humanity doesn’t have a lot of time to reduce carbon emissions and to lower carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
The reason scientists are working so diligently on this is not because we’re big fans of CDR, but because we know the oceans may be able to help. With an ocean internet of sensors, we can really understand how the ocean works including the risks and benefits of ocean CDR.
Even without hunting rifles, humans appear to have a strong negative influence on the movement of wildlife. A study of Glacier National Park hiking trails during and after a COVID-19 closure adds evidence to the theory that humans can create a ‘landscape of fear’ like other apex predators, changing how species use an area simply with their presence. Researchers found that when human hikers were present, 16 out of 22 mammal species, including predators and prey alike, changed where and when they accessed areas. Some completely abandoned places they previously used, others used them less frequently, and some shifted to more nocturnal activities to avoid humans.
Through the Leading with Equity initiative, ACEEE researchers have synthesized perspectives from community-based organizations (CBOs) and advocates to provide recommendations to help decision makers advance an equitable energy future through state- and utility-level action. Communities of color and low-income communities face high energy burdens and barriers to accessing energy efficiency and clean energy services, while experiencing disproportionately high levels of pollution and living in less efficient housing. Providing more robust, accessible energy-saving programs and services to communities of color and low-income communities can address this problem and advance an equitable energy future. Decision makers working in state agencies, utilities, and regulatory bodies can better embed equity in their clean energy programs and policies by implementing recommendations based on the expertise of the communities most impacted by climate change, the energy system, and high energy bills.
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