Can ocean antacids slow down climate change?

By Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Yasmine Salam and Cynthia McFadden

Edited by News Gate Team

The technique is one of a growing number of strategies aimed at leveraging the ocean, which covers 70 percent of earth’s surface, in the fight against global warming.

An aerial view of mine waste in Thetford Mines, Quebec. Planetary Technologies intends to extract magnesium hydroxide out of the waste left behind by the old asbestos mine.
NBC News

Nova Scotia’s HALIFAX Will Burt, a Canadian oceanographer, was lecturing to college students in Fairbanks, Alaska, just over a year ago when he was informed by a former coworker about a firm that aimed to utilize the ocean to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Burt stated, “I didn’t have to think about it.

Eight months later, Burt was conducting trials with a team of researchers off the coast of Nova Scotia as part of a moonshot initiative to slow down climate change.

As scientists made adjustments to carbon measurement devices hanging off the side of the boat, Burt said, “I feel like every scientist here on this ship has had a sense of, ‘Now, this is why I got into this.

Planetary Technologies’ senior marine chemist Will Burt at sea off Halifax, Nova Scotia. Riley Smith for NBC News

The ocean is essential in preventing climate change. It naturally recycles carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale, much like forests and wetlands do.

Burt works for Planetary Technologies, a Canadian business looking to capitalize on and accelerate that potential by dispersing antacid powder into the ocean.

According to one theory, seawater chemical changes could allow the ocean’s surface to absorb far more atmospheric carbon than it currently does.

The business is working on a method that would convert the leftovers from closed mines into an alkaline powder. To avoid needing to develop additional infrastructure, they would transfer it into the water using pipes already in place from energy or wastewater treatment facilities.

The method is one of an increasing number of tactics designed to use the ocean, which makes up 70% of the earth’s surface, to combat climate change. In 2021, the National Academies of Science released a significant report urging additional study of ocean-based carbon removal techniques in view of the growing body of scientific evidence that lowering emissions alone won’t be sufficient to avert climate change’s catastrophic effects.

A team of Dalhousie University students and researchers collects baseline data at sea off Halifax, Nova Scotia, last August. Riley Smith for NBC News

While noting that research on the practicality and potential trade-offs of these tactics is, at best, in its infancy, the paper listed everything from large-scale seaweed cultivation to firing lasers to electrochemically change the water’s composition.

At the time, Scott Doney, chair of the committee and professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, stated that “if we want to make fully informed judgments about the future of our ocean and climate, we need to complete some really essential studies in the next decade.”

Planetary Technologies is not alone in the race to get there.

“There is no magic solution for removing carbon. Buckshot made of silver is required. And it implies that many of these strategies will be required for us to succeed, according to Wil Burns, a professor of environmental policy at Northwestern University.

Greg Rau, an oceanographer, began doing small-scale beaker experiments in the middle of the 2000s in which he changed the alkalinity of saltwater and then calculated how much carbon was absorbed. When Rau was a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he submitted a few patent applications for a technique that would eventually be known as “ocean alkalinity enhancement,” but the approach received little attention.

No one was rushing to my door, he said. So let’s put it,” Rau remarked.

Planetary intends to recycle mine waste from a defunct asbestos mine in Quebec to produce pure magnesium hydroxide, which the company believes would help accelerate the ocean’s carbon uptake ability in the areas where it’s used.  

The strategy is inspired by the natural process of chemical rock weathering, where rain — which is slightly acidic —  “weathers” or erodes the surface of rocks and minerals, and then transfers that alkalinity to the ocean via runoff

It’s a process that occurs with or without human intervention, but on geologic time scales. 

“We need something much more rapid than what nature can muster at this point,” Rau said. 

According to estimates by the National Academies of Sciences, even if the global community meets its emissions reduction goals, by 2050 it will still need to remove an additional 10 gigatons of CO2 annually to avoid devastating climate outcomes.

Scientists have to walk a delicate line — design a method that’s scalable and effective enough to actually affect the climate without adversely affecting the environment in the process. 

“People, for better or worse, perceive the oceans as pristine, and they’re going to have some serious concerns about interventions of this nature,” said Burns, referring to a fear in the scientific community that any negative affects or public distrust of one ocean-based carbon capture method could create backlash against all other approaches.  

A controversy that broke out in 2012 is largely to blame for this anxiety.

120 tons of iron-enriched dust were dumped into the water off the coast of British Columbia by a Canadian corporation as part of an ocean fertilization experiment to promote the growth of phytoplankton. A massive plankton bloom brought on by the experiment was apparently visible from space. A global outrage followed.

The experiment was deemed a public relations failure by the global scientific community despite the lack of evidence that it caused any harm.

“It just had a major backfire. Lennart Bach, a marine biogeochemist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, stated, “So this time, I think we should be particularly careful to get everyone on board.

In an attempt to pre-empt fears over safety, Planetary is partially funding research at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia into oyster reproduction and phytoplankton growth. 

Oceanographer Hugh MacIntyre, who has studied phytoplankton for more than 35 years, said research is starting with the microscopic algae for a reason.

“Every organism that you see in the ocean, whether it’s an orca or a fish, a starfish, a lobster, whatever — it eats something that ate something that ate the phytoplankton,” MacIntyre, a professor at Dalhousie University, said. 

So far, MacIntyre’s tests haven’t resulted in significant negative impacts to plankton growth, and he’s using a concentration of magnesium hydroxide that’s 10 times higher than what Planetary actually intends to use. 

“We’re going way on the extreme because we want to know at what point would it make a difference,” he said. 

MacIntyre said he’ll never be able to definitively prove that the antacid will have no harmful effects on marine life, but he can test how the plankton fare when pushed to extremes. 

“Ultimately, the question is, at what point are you confident enough that there’s not a problem?” he said.

Tinkering with ocean chemistry raises complicated legal questions.

While there’s no specific legal framework for ocean-based carbon removal in the U.S. or Canada, there are treaties that regulate such things as dumping waste into the ocean

Unless regulatory bodies come up with new rules and permitting processes that are designed with ocean-based carbon capture in mind, the status quo will, at best, pose artificial or unnecessary barriers to launching safe and responsible projects, and, at worst, create gaps in oversight that bad actors could take advantage of, said Romany Webb, an environmental lawyer and deputy director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. 

“Those existing laws that we’re trying to apply to these techniques weren’t developed with these techniques in mind, and so often aren’t a particularly good fit for either facilitating these sorts of activities, or for ensuring that they’re conducted in a safe and responsible way,” Webb said.

So far, Planetary Technologies has been fine-tuning the ability to measure their carbon uptake off the shores of Nova Scotia — no small feat in an ocean already saturated with massive amounts of carbon. But the company intends to start running small-scale ocean pilots — adding their antacid and measuring the change in carbon absorption — in Canada and the U.K. later this year. 

A research team travels by boat to collect samples off Halifax, Nova Scotia.Riley Smith for NBC News

In order to speed up its attempts to improve the method, the e-commerce behemoth Shopify has already agreed to buy 730 tons of future carbon credits from the business.

If we can’t lower our emissions first, Kelland remarked, “honestly, all the carbon removal in the world won’t make any difference.”

He claimed that each location’s use of magnesium hydroxide would be well within the boundaries of current legal restrictions. By 2045, the corporation intends to collect one gigaton of carbon annually.

Although Kelland and Battochio acknowledged that some believed it would be difficult to achieve their objective and genuinely affect the climate using this approach, they insisted that having “gigaton ambition” is essential.

By Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Yasmine Salam and Cynthia McFadden

Edited by News Gate Team

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