The hope and hype of seaweed farming for carbon removal

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Say, theoretically, that a pipe in your bathroom springs a leak. Bad situation, right? The good news is that there are pretty much only two things you need to do: turn the water off and clean up what’s already been spilled. 

In the same way, there are two major things we need to do to address climate change. We need to cut emissions—for example, by slowing down our use of fossil fuels. That’s akin to turning off the water tap. Then we’ll need to mop up the spill—that’s carbon removal, processes that aim to pull carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. 

There’s a problem with the second part of this plan: our box of cleaning supplies is a bit bare. Researchers and startups are working on it, building demonstration projects for direct air capture and planting trees all over the world. In addition, a growing number of ventures are turning to the oceans that cover two-thirds of our planet. There’s huge potential to store carbon there. 

But there are questions too, and a new study lays out some problems with seaweed farming, one commonly-suggested technique for ocean-based carbon removal. So for the newsletter this week, let’s dive into carbon removal in the ocean: what is it, why are so many people so interested in it, and what’s standing in the way of us using a bunch of seaweed in the ocean as a giant carbon sponge?

The seascape

Carbon removal has become an essential piece of our response to climate change, as the UN’s climate change committee pointed out in a report last year. Estimates of exactly how much carbon we’ll need to remove vary, but the consensus is that it will need to top a billion tons annually within the next few decades if we’re going to keep warming below 2 °C over preindustrial levels and avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

To be clear: efforts to pull carbon out of the atmosphere won’t replace the need to cut emissions moving forward, but we’ve already polluted too much to neglect the cleanup. 

Researchers are looking into a wide range of approaches to removing carbon from the atmosphere. Some are straightforwardly technical, like direct air capture in giant facilities can use massive fans and specialized membranes to trap carbon dioxide. Other approaches lean on nature, like growing trees and trapping carbon in their biomass underground

Oceans cover the majority of our planet, and in fact they already suck up roughly 30% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions through a whole host of routes. 

Researchers think there’s a huge opportunity to capture and store even more carbon in the ocean’s depths by enhancing these natural mechanisms or inventing their own. 

Some groups are looking to tweak the ocean’s chemistry through a process called alkalinity enhancement: with more alkaline chemicals, seawater can absorb more carbon dioxide. Other approaches are more direct, like one that zaps seawater to remove carbon dioxide

And a growing number of groups are aiming to leverage the natural potential of seaweed for carbon removal. Like other photosynthesizers, seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, transforming it into biomass. 

And while most carbon captured by plants and algae eventually returns to the atmosphere as those organisms die and decay, a small part ends up stuck, or sequestered, when remains sink into places where they can’t decompose. In the case of seaweed, as much as 175 million tons of carbon could be sequestered each year as fronds sink to deep parts of the ocean where the water doesn’t mix much. 

And a growing number of groups are looking to mimic nature, growing seaweed and sinking it on purpose to capture more carbon. 

The snag

While turning up the dial on seaweed sinking sounds like a straightforward approach to achieve carbon removal, a lot of questions are left on the table, as my colleague James Temple outlined in a 2021 story on the topic.

First, there would be a frankly wild amount of seaweed involved in full-scale efforts to remove carbon in this way: probably on the scale of millions of tons. And we just don’t know what the ecological effects of sinking millions of tons of seaweed into the ocean might be. 

There could be practical constraints, too. Growing enough seaweed to capture a billion tons of carbon would likely require a million square kilometers of ocean space, according to a new study. That’s over twice the size of California, just for growing seaweed that we would sink into the ocean. My colleague Rhiannon Williams wrote more about this study in a story last week.

Also, it’s not a given that we totally understand how all these dynamics work in the deep ocean. There’s a massive debate going on about how carbon removal projects in the ocean can track and verify that they’re actually capturing as much carbon as they say they are. 

The ocean could still be a crucial partner in cleaning up the mess we’ve made with climate change. But it’s pretty unlikely that a single solution will magically solve the problem for us, even deep below the waves. 

Related reading

Read more about seaweed farming’s constraints in Rhiannon’s story.

For more on the scientific questions around seaweed-based carbon removal efforts, check out this 2021 feature on the topic

My colleague James also took a look at a project from X (formerly Google X), aimed at measuring the effects of carbon removal using seagrass. 

A new initiative is dumping a lot of money into ocean alkalinity enhancement. We shared the scoop earlier this month. 

Keeping up with climate

I was on Science Friday last week to recap the week’s biggest climate news! Check out the segment for more on how ocean temperatures are rising, as well as a story about flies that gave me an existential crisis. (Science Friday

Communities with a lack of internet access often face other challenges, including a disproportionate risk from climate change. (MIT Technology Review)

A crucial factor in how much energy ships need to cross the ocean is what kind of coating is used on the bottom. Who knew it was so important for ships to be slippery? (Hakai

A single, previously shuttered mine in California could reposition the US as a player in rare earth mining. The metals are used in technologies from wind turbines to solar panels. (Grist)

→ Yes, we have the materials we need to power the world with renewables. (MIT Technology Review

Climate change is forcing wildlife around the world to adapt, and that’s evident when you compare museum specimens of flycatchers from around 1900 with what the birds look like today. (Nature)

Direct air capture is entering its awkward teenage phase: not quite stuck in the lab, not quite ready for commercial prime time. (Bloomberg

→ Here’s what it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal. (MIT Technology Review)


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