From the Ice Age to my reading page - millennia in one space.
As a young student of global molecular ecology in 1992, I studied in the halls of the old Stockholm observatory, built on a glacial esker – the irony and where my journey to seaweed started is only obvious to me today.
The longest temperature record.
Here I was, sitting on a glacial esker, from 10,000 years ago, in the majestic halls of the Stockholm Observatory, built in 1753; reading the science of glaciology, global biogeochemical systems and predictions of where the climate was heading. A bit of a melting pot in time to make your head spin! Not only that, Anders Celcius invented the thermometer there, and so the Stockholm Observatory is home to the longest running record of planetary temperature since 1756 – that is 265 years ago! What better point of authority could I have had to becomes aware of the systems that drive our planet.
The compendium I was reading was written in 1977, by one of my most wonderful lecturers, still at Stockholm University today, Prof. Sven Blomqvist. It compiled so much knowledge, including data from Hawaii’s observatory, from 1959, that already then alerted us how to fast the CO2 in the atmosphere was increasing and that it would become a problem.
Are we collectively very slow learners?
It was 1896 when the eminent Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius and his colleague Arvid Högbom, did the calculations to work out that if the CO2 in the atmosphere was doubled, the global temperature would rise by up to 6C! They were not too worried, as the rate of burning fossil carbon back then would have allowed for another 3000 years of activity before it became a problem.
Little did Svante know, just how fast the burning rate would accelerate. Today we are releasing fossil carbon at a rate 100 times faster than we were back then.
Where seaweed comes in
With this foundation of understanding global systems, at least on the very surface of it, I now spend my time growing one of the seaweeds that is responsible for much of the global carbon burial that we are burning up today. We hear a lot about soil carbon, but ocean carbon storage is much faster and longer term. In fact, the molecular signatures in some of the largest tar deposits in the world suggest that these are made from ancient algae - just think – our roads are paved with seaweed! It is a bit ironic that there are people trying to invent tar from algae, when that is how the tar was made in the first place!
Seaweeds and plants did such a good job at burying carbon. Photosynthesis is the best carbon capturing mechanism we have on the planet today; producing a planet rich in oxygen in which we can thrive. The technology for carbon capture and storage was invented long before humans arrived. It might be a little foolish to underestimate the systems that support us today, and to try to invent new ones to solve the issue.
Back to the future
Now we are reversing that carbon capture process very rapidly, and we are racing back in time to when the planet was rich in carbon dioxide. In this back to the future world, life will still survive, because it did before, but in a different way. It will make things very tough for us however, as it is not the system that supported the life that we evolved to live in.
Seaweeds are basically be big rafts of cells that absorb nutrients and CO2 as fast as they can be delivered. Each kg of dried seaweed has captured up to 1.5kg of CO2. Once there is enough of this heavy seaweed and the food and nutrients start to runout, it can sink to the bottom of the ocean, where, if deep enough, it won’t return for a very long time; sometimes millennia.
Slowing the carbon pump
This is all a part of the natural global carbon pump. Photosynthesis puts carbon into biological forms. It sinks, becomes part of the fossil sediments like petroleum, gas and tar deposits, and then becomes CO2 again through very slow processes. This fossil carbon could be considered a renewable resource really if we think about it – the only problem is, it is so slow and buried for such a long time, that our burning rate of it far exceeds the rate of capturing it again.
This is central to why we need to decide to stop burning it! It is essential that we don’t further unbalance the cycle that created and maintains our kind of life on earth. Well, this decision isn’t essential; but neither is survival if you think about it.
Seaweed can help in two ways
We can reduce our fossil inputs into the food production system, by eating more seaweed in our diets. Such a shift towards increasing the amount of fast carbon capture foods in our diet, uses a much smaller area on the planet and much smaller energy inputs. Even feeding seaweed to chickens, for example, will make that type of animal protein much more sustainable and healthy, as it concentrates Omega-3 and other nutrients that we need in our eggs.
If you eat a plant rich diet, you can improve your food footprint even further. If we aim for 10% seaweed in our staple foods and replace some of the land-based crops, you can reduce 9.8% of the fossil carbon inputs into land crops. If you include some animal products in your diet, you can also do so with a much lower impact by focusing on animal products that include a lot of seaweed in their diet, and are efficient producers. Like prawns and chickens. This is very different to the wishful burbing stories of methane reduction in cattle; that said, if we replace actual cattle feed with 10% seaweed, then things like milk become much more sustainable.
Bear in mind that in many countries, and Australia in particular, we consume far too much meat than what is considered healthy for us; so the first step is to buy better quality, more efficient and less meat. If you eat meat, just buy better meat, less often, and enjoy paying more to the farmer that bothers to produce it that way. We will all be better off while the planet will be too. We can start this today. If 6 billion people made that choice now, things would change quickly!
Speed up the best carbon capture
The second way that seaweed can help is to help it keep doing what it has always done; capture and bury carbon in the deep oceans. But today, compared to the rate we are burning up fossil carbon, even this process is too slow. There might be the opportunity to speed up the seaweed biomass production, like we do in our seaweed farming systems where we capture fermented CO2 directly. We could then bury it either in materials that can replace fossil materials like plastic and building products, or, some even suggest that we bury it in the deep oceans ourselves. All of these solutions are possible, but will require a lot more investment and technology development before they are competitive in the market.
Let's do what can be done today
10% seaweed in your pasta is competitive and available today! We even put it in your muesli, and more and more companies are learning how to incorporate seaweed into a diverse range of foods. It will take a while yet, but the more the public demands change by what they buy, the more the market and food productions systems will change. Keep an eye out for all of the new seaweed products that are entering the market. Ask for it today, buy it today, to have an impact today.
Let's get cracking towards 10% seaweed in our staple foods!