Towering some thirty meters high, Tasmania’s giant kelp provides sanctuary for many creatures of the deep. In a race to preserve the remaining 5% of kelp forests, scientists are experimenting with marine permaculture to restore lost biodiversity and sequester carbon from the ocean.
Reforestation has long been recognised as one of the best ways to store carbon. As British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot says “there is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little and builds itself. It’s called, a tree.” But there’s a new solution sparking conversation in the world of conservation and it’s called marine permaculture. Much like planting trees — but this time in the sea — kelp forests are being lauded for their ability to store huge amounts of carbon.
Marine permaculture was first coined by Dr Brian von Herzen, after he spent ten years working with the Climate Foundation on restoring the ocean’s biodiversity. His first project involved using wave driven pumps to upwell nutrients, attracting plankton and in turn, other marine life.
“Since 1995, 90% of the world’s carbon has been stored in the ocean.”
Working with two plankton experts 100 meters north of Hawaii, von Herzen demonstrated after just 57 hours that his upwelling system sparked plankton growth and attracted a few species of fish to the area. Two weeks later, a whale shark was spotted feeding on the plankton. Following the success of this experiment, the team at the Climate Foundation took it a step further; building platforms for kelp to attach to, attracting plankton and then moving up the food chain to entice tuna and sharks to the area. Growing up to fifty centimeters per day, the ability for kelp to flourish quickly in the ocean’s most nutrient polluted uninhabitable “dead zones,” makes it a great ally to help combat climate change.
Aside from breathing life into aquatic deserts, the most exciting feature of marine permaculture, is arguably its ability to sequester thousands of tonnes of carbon per square kilometer. Since 1995, 90% of the world’s carbon has been stored in the ocean, the remainder of which melts glaciers and ice caps, leaving only a sliver of thermal energy spilling over into our atmosphere. While the ocean has been safeguarding us land dwellers from anthropogenic heat to date, its ability to store carbon is finite. In his last publication before his death in 1957, atmospheric scientist Carl-Gustav Rossby states that “heat can be stored and temporarily isolated in the sea” for only a few decades to a few centuries before the heat begins leaking into our atmosphere.
“They say forests are the lungs of the world, but so are our oceans. Seaweed accounts for 54% of the world’s oxygen.”
It’s hard to tell from above sea level exactly how warm our oceans are getting, but we don’t need to look far to find evidence that it’s happening. Tasmania for example, has lost 95% of its iconic kelp forests in the last few decades, something that lead researcher at IMAS, Cayne Layton, says would cause public outrage if we’d lost that equivalent on land. The underwater wilderness of Tasmania has been essential for maintaining reef habitats around Australia in the past, and while most of it has disappeared, there’s still hope that it can be restored.
Scientists have discovered that the remaining 5% of kelp left is relatively healthy and resistant to warmer temperatures. Layton tells the ABC “we’re hoping that they represent genotypes or populations that have just been naturally selected to be more tolerant of warmer waters.” That’s where marine permaculture comes in. Having planted the 5% remaining species, the team at the Climate Foundation are now waiting to see whether the underwater forests recover.
They say forests are the lungs of the world, but so are our oceans. Seaweed accounts for 54% of the worlds oxygen. It acts as a climate regulator and without it, global temperatures could exceed 100 degrees celsius. Fish, which rely on the delicate system of phytoplankton and kelp to survive, is also the main source of protein for one in four people around the world. So with the same vigour that we’re planting trees, we must turn our attention to the world’s other crucial source of oxygen — seaweed. We can do this by funding a seaweed farm, or volunteering our skills to the Climate Foundation.
“Ocean degradation affects not only those who live on the coast, but also those inland.”
Spreading awareness is also key. Frederico Saraiva Nogueira, Vice-Chair for Latin America and the Caribbean at UNESCO’s IOC says “Communication is a very important factor for the safeguarding and restoration of the ocean’s health. That is why the media plays a major role in raising public awareness. Ocean degradation affects not only those who live on the coast, but also those inland.”
Damon Gameu’s documentary 2040 is what drew my attention to marine permaculture and I’ve since opted to donate a portion of my proceeds from my plastic free, reef safe sunscreen to local marine permaculture projects. Aside from making businesses aware of initiatives they can contribute to, it can also spread awareness about emerging circular model businesses. The circular economy includes businesses that find ways to eliminate waste by continually reusing resources, sharing, repairing, remanufacturing and recycling to name some strategies.
“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.”
While there’s incredible potential for marine permaculture to cool our oceans, Layton says this solution will only buy us time unless we “get a handle on carbon emissions and ocean warming.” Aside from creating positive carbon handprints by supporting marine permaculture projects, and tracking changes in the ocean so we know the scope of the problem, we need to reduce our carbon footprint.
There are endless ways to do this that many of us are already aware of — but to actually find the drive to buy less, buy local and commute on public transport — we first need to shift our mentality and lifestyle from the idea that we’re consumers belonging to an economy, towards the idea that we’re citizens belonging to the earth. With this mindset, we’re more likely to make choices that prioritise our environment, like using chemical-free skincare to protect our reefs from bleaching and avoiding using plastic, which ends up as micro plastics that kill marine life.
Knowing our inextricable place in the web of things and being humbled by the fact that we rely on the natural world is a step in the right direction towards maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. Botanist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer sums this up beautifully, “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.”