Barnstable County

Woods Hole scientists look to ocean for aid in climate crisis battle

FALMOUTH, Mass. — Rising sea levels, flooding rainfall, and worsening droughts. These are just a few of the impacts we’re feeling from climate change, but researchers right here on Cape Cod are looking to the ocean for help.

Our oceans play a vital role in drawing down excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. They act as a carbon sponge, and then a sink, where greenhouse gases can be stored for hundreds of years.

Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, started working on an idea 20 years ago that’s getting traction once again as the climate crisis worsens.

He says most people really don’t think about ocean iron, but it’s a key component to growing phytoplankton that drift around in the oceans. Marine plants need small amounts of iron to flourish. The idea is to introduce more of it to regions that are iron starved.

Early research showed plant growth with green chlorophyll in just a day or two with just a small amount of iron. The goal is to enhance the natural cycle of photosynthesis to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

Once the CO2 is taken up by the plants, it is then eaten up by marine life and eventually makes it’s way to the bottom of the ocean, falling as “marine snow,” where it can remain for many centuries.

So how long before we see this in practice on a large scale? At least 5 years, because Dr. Buesseler says, “we really don’t want to harm the ocean any more than we do already. We’re doing this to help humanity out of a climate crisis and we’re trying to do this with good intention but we need the data, we need the experiments to be able to make any sort of predictions of what’s going to happen.”

Buesseler says there’s no silver bullet to cut out the human carbon footprint. Instead, we need to use silver buckshot, a multi-pronged approach. He and his team aim to capture 10% of our carbon emissions via their various ocean projects, with the other 90% coming from the “reduction” of carbon emissions from land-based sources.

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