Charismatic Carbon

Kelp Forest (Photo: Melissa Ward)

Source: Sonia Fernandez, UC Santa Barbara

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), addressing carbon emissions from our food sector is absolutely essential to combatting climate change. While land and agriculture took center stage in the panel’s most recent report, missing was how the oceans at large could help in that fight.

Seaweed, perceived by some as little more than marine debris on the beach, could be a new player in the effort to mitigate climate change. So say researchers at UC Santa Barbara, who investigated the carbon offsetting potential of seaweed aquaculture.

“It’s not a silver bullet, nor an industry that exists yet,” said Halley Froehlich, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology. “But it has huge potential.” Froehlich is lead author of a first-ever global assessment of seaweed aquaculture’s carbon sequestration scaling potential, which appears in Current Biology.

Halley Froehlich (Photo: Courtesy Image)

According to Froehlich and co-authors Jamie Afferbach, Melanie Frazier and Benjamin Halpern from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, who synthesized diverse datasets from scientific literature, seaweed aquaculture could indeed be a powerful new way to sequester carbon. The process would involve cultivating seaweed and harvesting it for the purpose of sinking the algae in the deeper ocean, where the carbon stored in its tissues would remain ‘buried.’

Co-author Ben Halpern (Photo: Matt Perko)

“We really wanted to know if it could be beneficial, but also be realistic about its potential,” Froehlich said of the research, which they bounded with constraints including nutrients, temperature and geographic suitability, as well as assessed production growth and cost. The researchers also investigated the mitigation potential on various scales with a focus on the food sector — a major source of greenhouse gases and considerable hurdle to fight climate change.

There is substantial suitable area — roughly 48 million square kilometers — in which seaweed could be farmed, and a relatively small proportion (0.001%) would be enough to render the entire global aquaculture industry carbon neutral, according to the study.

However, the benefits don’t scale proportionally against the much higher greenhouse gas-emitting global agricultural sector, in part due to cost and growth constraints, Froehlich said. Farming seaweed alone won’t balance emissions from global food production, she added, but could be a useful new tool in a suite that includes other carbon reduction and offset measures such as cleaner sources of energy, reforestation and protection of carbon sinks.

Greenhouse gas-mitigating seaweed farming could have the most potential when it comes to achieving local and regional carbon neutrality goals, the study found. California is particularly well-primed to reap the mitigating benefits of seaweed aquaculture, given the state’s strong climate action policy and its long, nutrient-rich coast. An area of only 3.8% of the West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone (a marine zone that extends no more than 200 miles from the coast) would be enough to offset the carbon produced by the state’s agriculture sector.

Relative to the rest of the world, U.S. seaweed aquaculture is still somewhat in its infancy.

“The vast majority of seaweed aquaculture occurs in Southeast Asia,” Froehlich said. While no measurable seaweed farming was occurring in the United States in 2016 — the most recent time period of the study — small seaweed farms are starting to emerge in the U.S., though primarily for food and other commercial purposes, and not for carbon sequestration.

The U.S., meanwhile, is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, Froehlich pointed out, underscoring the need for solutions such as seaweed farming to mitigate the millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalents the country emits per year. Fortunately, seaweed farming has other appealing and beneficial environmental effects, she noted.

“We like to call it ‘charismatic carbon’ because it has additional benefits,” Froehlich said, “such as potentially providing habitat for fish and other marine life, reducing ocean acidification and oxygen depletion, and taking up excess nutrients in local areas.”

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  1. This is the second time a PR has been done that included Mr. Halpern. If you’re reading this: it’s hard to take your studies seriously when it includes such a smug-faced photo. BTW, there has been a seaweed cutter in operation near Jalama for years.

  2. Perhaps this scientist doesn’t really care what his publicity photo looks like as he is busy trying to save humans from themselves? His photo seems irrelevant to the benefits of the research. There are several mechanisms proposed for sequestering atmospheric carbon in the oceans and it would be interesting to know which costs the least and works the best. From personal experience, it seems that the kelp and seaweed harvesters in current usage are not that efficient as a lot ends up on the beach. And how do you sink the collected seaweed in the deep ocean so the carbon remains in storage?

  3. The scare tactics on global warming are overblown. Human’s demise from climate change is not happening anytime soon, like they are saying in the next few decades. I’m all for green energy, getting away from fossil fuels and planting more trees though. But you can’t deny that the sun is getting hotter, but that’s like billion of years away when the Earth burns up. Mankind will have left this place for other inhabitable planets long before that.

  4. Are you kidding me? Oh my God!!! HAHAHA!!!! You dismiss the science because you don’t like the look of the scientist. So who do you go to for your science, one of the Kardashians?
    Another great example of why this country is turning in to Idiocracy.

  5. I think the green house gases are a problem that we need to solve. We can plant more trees, and eventually get off fossil fuels. But how are you going to tell China and India to contributing to climate change? I think they are bigger problems now than the U.S.

  6. You “think” they are bigger problems, but didn’t bother to find out. That’s a great way to make decisions, typical of the denier crowd, because that way they can see the world the way they want to see it, regardless of reality.

  7. Okay, this is pretty amusing.
    Exactly how can convincing people to consume less in the way of material goods and energy generate more wealth for the elites? Oh, you’re saying this will all happen through a magical and hidden taxation scheme which will divert money into he private bank accounts of the ultra wealthy? Illuminati much?

    DUDE! Do you even read what you cite to?! OMG. The article that you cite, which was published by a partisan “think tank”, only EIGHT YEARS AGO, which allows you to ignore the last EIGHT YEARS of scientific research and consensus literally quotes one guy who says:
    PRINCETON, NJ (January 3, 2011)—S. Fred Singer said in an interview with the National Association of Scholars (NAS) that “the number of skeptical qualified scientists has been growing steadily; I would guess it is about 40% now.”
    HAHAHA!! Come on man!!! So one scientist says he “WOULD GUESS” at a 40% number of skeptics in the scientific community.
    Because that’s how you science! You GUESS! Come on, man, I don’t want you to feel too badly here but this is literally laughable.

  9. So you have one link from an explicitly partisan organization that quotes one explicitly partisan person who is famous for taking fossil fuel industry money, “guessing” a number that flies in the face of numerous studies. In addition to denying climate science, Fred Singer denies the science regarding second hand smoke. He is a corrupt bad person, and so is anyone who cites him or NAS.

  10. Perhaps the seaweed could be used as mulch/fertilizer on crops. Many local soils actually benefit from some Sodium Chloride.
    There IS a climate change scam, and that is carbon credit trading. Al Gore et al made billions from this scam. I planted 100 trees last year and I will be planting more.

  11. Cannot find any stories on Al Gore making Billions. Seems like fake news. Most stories on this are at least 10 years old. Extremists like to attack liberals for being successful but never attack extremists for the same behavior. Seems hypocritical.

  12. Deniers don’t care about the validity of their sources. From a Sourcewatch article on NAS, linked below: “In 2010 and 2011, its president was espousing climate contrarianism under the group’s auspices, with no evident expertise in the climate science field.[2]
    The Association’s officers are not answerable to its membership: according to its 2009 IRS Form 990 (Part VI Section A), the Association doesn’t have members (line 6), members don’t elect the officers (line 7a), and the decisions of the governing body are not subject to members’ approval (line 7b).[3] Mid-2000s IRS filings also indicate that the Association was controlled by 0 or 1 person.
    The Association’s major foundation donor is the Sarah Scaife Foundation. By 2009, the majority of the Association’s revenue came from “educational partnerships”, the funding for which is winding down. While the NAS continues to describe itself as “an independent membership association of academics…”[4], in late 2009 membership was opened to all.[5]
    Anyone interested in a more thorough report on this organization should read the later parts of John Mashey’s 34pp “Bottling Nonsense” pdf, in the Resources section below.”

  13. Pitmix, kelp that is offshore does sink at a slow steady rate, it does not hang around on the surface.
    That’s why it’s been proposed as a method for carbon sequestration.
    Kelp that grows close to shore can get pulled up by waves and washed ashore. It’s so close to shore that
    it doesn’t have much opportunity to sink.
    Here’s a video about one of the proposed mechanisms, (which has gone through several pilots that prove the basic concept)

  14. How can we help the wealthy and powerful extract more wealth from the poor and middle class and make them feel good about getting ripped off? Let’s create a new religion playing on the natural insecurities and emotions of the populace! You were born in sin and you are a sinner! CO2 is evil, you are made from it, you live it, you breath it. Every joy and luxury you indulge in releases an inordinate amount of CO2, so you should feel guilt whenever you experience joy. But do not despair, we can help you achieve salvation! You must naturally make sacrifices because achieving salvation requires you to give. Your utility bills will go up. Your food will become more expensive. Your fuel will cost more. Your rent will increase. Why you ask? Only deniers ask questions. The new “science” cannot be challenged, it is “settled”! In order to save the world, you must accept a lower standard of living and you must condemn your children to an even lower standard of living in the future. Sorry, that’s what it takes to save the planet. The freedoms you enjoy today must be curtailed in order to win the fight against global warming. But don’t worry, as long as you do your part your guilt will be absolved and we can save the world. ———It’s a clever scheme isn’t it. Take advantage of humanity’s insecurities and desire to do good in the world in order to enrich the wealthy special interests at the expense of the poor.

  15. If all you environmentalists truly believe in global warming, then it’s time to start living up to your belief. Sell all your cell phones, lap tops and cars to start because they contribute to climate change because they contain plastic, oil and minerals which is the problem according to you.

  16. So all of the people that support minimizing their carbon footprint have to live a 100% pure life in order to be taken seriously? It’s not enough to reduce their usage of carbon by a bunch? That kind of all or nothing criticism cannot be taken seriously. But I can see why you do it because it lets you off the hook for doing anything while the rest of us have to be the adults in the room.

  17. Dude, those things already exist. The petrochemicals have already been used to create them. Selling them isn’t going to unmake them.
    Why do people like you insist on ridiculous also choices like that. Derp–if you believe in global warming and you exist and consume things then you oughtta kill yourselves, right? Derp.
    No, man. How about doing things like striving for greater efficiency, consuming less disposable crap, eating food grown nearby that wasn’t shipped on a container vessel, yeah, travel less. Eat less meat, or even stop eating meat, invest in global population reduction. Do these things really sound stupid and unattainable to you? What’s your approach. Just do whatever the F you want and too bad for everyone else? Is that really how you live?

  18. Deniers have reason not to trust the information that the climate predictors have brought to the table over the past 40 years. So much of it has been wrong….like waaaaay wrong. Of course, all of their wrong information has been debunked….by the same climate predictors and “scientists.” Polar caps…..still there.

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