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Energy, food and water: How much can we ask from the ocean?

Although vast amounts of the ocean remain unexplored, the things we do know about the largest habitat on Earth are enough to make us realize that humans, as stewards of this planet, have an innate responsibility to look after the ocean.

This watery habitat covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and houses thousands of known and up to millions of unknown species. Whether you have an anthropocentric worldview or you see the intrinsic value of everything that surrounds us, making sure our oceans are healthy and functioning properly benefits everyone: from aquatic organisms to humans living near or far from the ocean. Despite knowing this, humans have continued to burn large amounts of fossil fuels, which have increased the amount of carbon that eventually makes its way into the ocean. This process leads to water acidification that in turn produces coral bleaching, which leaves thousands of species that depend on these ecosystems homeless. In the following letter, I will explore ways in which humans can use the ocean to harness energy, reducing our carbon emissions and hence restoring this habitat. I will also discuss how we can further take advantage of ocean resources like desalinated water, which can help millions of people around the globe with no current access to clean fresh water.

Carbon dioxide emissions from industrial factories, burning of fuel in cars and planes, and dumping plastic garbage into the ocean are human activities that have tremendous negative impacts on the oceans. Recycling and preventing plastic waste from entering the ocean plays a simpler role in restoring our oceans, while the problem of carbon dioxide appears much more complicated. In a 2013 study by Katsumi Matsumoto from the Department of Earth Sciences at University of Minnesota, ocean acidification was determined to be a direct result of the absorption of half of all CO2 that has been emitted by humans since the Industrial Revolution, increasing the ocean’s temperatures causing corals to bleach. Even though some people still attribute increased global temperatures to natural cycles on Earth, a 2007 study conducted by Michael Lesser corelates humans’ impact on this planet over the last century to coral bleaching. Lesser states, “Since 1979, there have been dozens of reports of coral bleaching associated with elevated sea surface temperatures, whereas from 1876 to 1979, only three events were recorded.”

But the ocean’s own power might be able to solve these problems. Similar to hydroelectric power, humans can generate power using underwater turbines to turn kinetic energy from tides into electricity. This could steer humans away from relying on fossil fuels because underwater turbines are a very reliable alternative that is much more predictable than wind and solar energy. So why hasn’t this great idea been considered as a viable option to power our homes? According to Bumshick Shin from the Department of Civil Engineering and Waterfront and Coastal Research Center in Korea, our delay is due to construction cost and difficulty in finding an applicable location. Despite this, Shin states, “Once tidal power generation is developed, various developmental benefits are expected, such as semi-permanent energy production, a bridge role, and tourism.” To determine areas where these turbines could be placed, experts like Kassam Murali from the Indian Department of Ocean Engineering must examine different factors in order to locate potential sites to harness tidal energy. In a 2017 publication, Murali discussed an assessment of the mega-project Kalpasar, located in the Gulf of Khambhat, India. Here he predicted that the “total estimated power that could be harvested in these regions is about 9200 MW,” affirming that “this is equivalent to about six major nuclear power plants and eight major thermal power plants”.

If beauty, food and energy are not enough for you, consider this: an unlimited supply of drinkable water! In a 2016 scientific report, Matti Kummu from the Water and Development Research Group at Aalto University in Finland states, “Due to increasing population pressure, changing water consumption behavior, and climate change, the challenge of keeping water consumption at sustainable levels is projected to become even more difficult in the near future.” It is time for humans to turn to the ocean in search of drinkable water. In fact, this practice is not new. According to the United States Geological Survey, humans have done this since ancient times when travelling on their ships by converting sea water into drinkable water for the people on board. This process of removing dissolved salt works by boiling the water and collecting the steam (also known as distillation), or by a more modern process called reverse osmosis in which the water molecules pass through a porous membrane while leaving the larger salt particles behind.

If I get into deeper issues of intrinsic values, animal ethics and ecotourism, this letter could go on for several more thousand words. But one thing is already clear — humans need the ocean for food, energy and water. Now is the time to consider these issues because the fate of the planet is in our hands for us and future generations.

Jonathan Farah is an environmental science student at Paul Smith’s College. This essay is adapted from one that was part of an environmental chemistry class final project.

Works cited:

Kummu, M., Guillaume, J., de Moel, H., Eisner, S., Florke, M., Porkka, M., Siebert, S., Veldkamp, T. and Ward, P. (2016). “The world’s road to water scarcity: shortage and stress in the 20th century and pathways towards sustainability.” Scientific Reports, [online] 6(1). Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5146931/

Lesser, M. (2007). “Coral reef bleaching and global climate change: Can corals survive the next century?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 104(13), pp.5259-5260. Available at https://www.pnas.org/content/104/13/5259

Matsumoto, K. and McNeil, B. (2013). “Decoupled Response of Ocean Acidification to Variations in Climate Sensitivity.” Journal of Climate, [online] 26(5), pp.1764-1771. Available at https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00290.1

Murali, K. and Sundar, V. (2017). “Reassessment of tidal energy potential in India and a decision-making tool for tidal energy technology selection.” The International Journal of Ocean and Climate Systems, [online] 8(2), pp.85-97. Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1759313117694629

Shin, B. and Kim, K. (2013). “Effective tidal power generation with reduced environmental impact.” Journal of Coastal Research, [online] 165, pp.1657-1662. Available at: https://www.jcronline.org/doi/abs/10.2112/SI65-280.1

USGS.gov. (2019). “Desalination.” [online] Available at https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/desalination?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects [Accessed May 7, 2019]