Scientists in Australia
have discovered a seemingly endless number of ways that kelp and other types of seaweed can aid in the fight against climate change
Dr. Pia Winberg is convinced that seaweed species can play as important a role in human civilization as wheat, lumber, plastic, concrete, or nitrogen because of ongoing research
and harvesting in Australia.
Australia's panoply of marine plant species is richer and more diverse than in most other places on Earth, just as it has unique animals
found nowhere else.
“If we used the infrastructure
in the oceans and created seaweed islands, we would actually eliminate a lot of the climate change issues we have today,” she says in an interview and documentary by Isabelle Gerretsen for the BBC
Her reasoning is based on seaweed's rapid growth rate and ability to absorb carbon at significantly faster rates than terrestrial plants
Primer on seaweed
Aboriginal Australians used kelp leaves to make water carriers 45,000 years ago because of its rubbery and flexible texture, as well as its thick and resilient texture.
Nori, a type of seaweed commonly used in Japanese cuisine, was the first to be farmed when it was discovered off the coast of Japan in 1670.
All kelp is seaweed, but not all seaweed is kelp; in fact, the three species of seaweed are "red, yellow, and brown," much like a LEGO set, with kelp being a brown seaweed.
Kelp can grow two feet per day in ideal conditions, without the need for nitrogen-rich fertilizer like terrestrial crops or, obviously, de-weeding. Kelp and other seaweeds use photosynthesis to grow biomass by absorbing CO2, but at a rate estimated to be 50 times faster than forests.
During the devastating fires that ravaged the Amazon
rainforest a few years ago, op-eds and other articles were rife with the phrase "Lungs of the Earth," but in reality, kelp deserves such a moniker.
According to a report from Conservation
International's Marine Climate Change Program, any modern, intelligent action against climate change should take place in the current marine environment
, which holds 90% of the world's carbon budget and absorbs 30%-50% of all human-caused emissions
Report available at: http://www.cbd.int/cooperation/pavilion/cancun-presentations/2010-12-1-Pidgeon-en.pdf
Winberg and her colleagues believe seaweed has a significant role to play in this figure. How significant? One study found that if just 3.8% of California
's coastal waters were converted to kelp cultivation, the total emissions from the state's agriculture sector could be absorbed.
Winberg isn't just an armchair activist for algae; her family farm in Shoalhaven, New South Wales, is a possible model for future agriculture and industry.
A wheat refinery next door pumps its emissions into large vats of seawater, where seaweed uses it to grow via photosynthesis. Nitrogen and other nutrients from the refinery fortify the green
seaweed, allowing it to be turned into a variety of substrates for products such as animal feed, cosmetics, and even ice cream.
“Even a 10% substitution of seaweed in wheat production or meat production in food
would have a significant impact,” says Winberg, who believes that offshore seaweed cultivation in Australia is one of the best ways to target large-scale seaweed farming.
This concept is being implemented at a 50-hectare mussel farm in Jarvis Bay, where fishermen believe it improves the quality of the mussels, reasoning that the best shellfish always come from areas rich in marine plants.
Their tradesman instincts are correct, as a study discovered that the absorption of CO2 by kelp creates a buffer in their immediate vicinity, reducing the acidity levels of the ocean water around them, providing better conditions for fish and shellfish to grow. When cultivated in large quantities, this deacidification could change the entire ocean ecosystem.
GNN reported in 2020 on the development of a dietary supplement made from seaweed that, when given to cows, eliminated 80% of the methane produced by their gut fermentation of feed, effectively eliminating the 2.8% of American emissions attributable to all livestock animals.
Given that methane only remains in the atmosphere for 12 years, it won't be long before an entire country's livestock industry is methane neutral.
Life began in the oceans, and rather than a magical space
metal or nuclear fusion, the solution to many of the world's most pressing issues may require us to look backward rather than forward.