New tech aims to make the ocean healthier for marine life

New tech aims to make the ocean healthier for marine life

Overabundance of dissolved carbon dioxide poses a threat to marine life. A new system detects elevated levels of the greenhouse gases and mitigates them on the spot.

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A defunct drydock basin arched by a rusting 19th century steel bridge seems an incongruous place to conduct state-of-the-art climate science. But this placid and protected sliver of water connecting Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to the East River was just right for Garrett Boudinot to float a small dock topped with water carbon-sensing gear. And while his system right now looks like a trio of plastic boxes wired up together, it aims to mediate the growing ocean acidification problem, caused by overabundance of dissolved carbon dioxide.

Boudinot, a biogeochemist and founder of a carbon-management startup called Vycarb, is honing his method for measuring CO2 levels in water, as well as (at least temporarily) correcting their negative effects. It’s a challenge that’s been occupying numerous climate scientists as the ocean heats up, and as states like New York recognize that reducing emissions won’t be enough to reach their climate goals; they’ll have to figure out how to remove carbon, too.

To date, though, methods for measuring CO2 in water at scale have been either intensely expensive, requiring fancy sensors that pump CO2 through membranes; or prohibitively complicated, involving a series of lab-based analyses. And that’s led to a bottleneck in efforts to remove carbon as well.

But recently, Boudinot cracked part of the code for measurement and mitigation, at least on a small scale. While the rest of the industry sorts out larger intricacies like getting ocean carbon markets up and running and driving carbon removal at billion-ton scale in centralized infrastructure, his decentralized method could have important, more immediate implications.

Specifically, for shellfish hatcheries, which grow seafood for human consumption and for coastal restoration projects. Some of these incubators for oysters and clams and scallops are already feeling the negative effects of excess carbon in water, and Vycarb’s tech could improve outcomes for the larval- and juvenile-stage mollusks they’re raising. “We’re learning from these folks about what their needs are, so that we’re developing our system as a solution that’s relevant,” Boudinot says.

Ocean acidification can wreak havoc on developing shellfish, inhibiting their shells from growing and leading to mass die-offs.

Ocean waters naturally absorb CO2 gas from the atmosphere. When CO2 accumulates faster than nature can dissipate it, it reacts with H2O molecules, forming carbonic acid, H2CO3, which makes the water column more acidic. On the West Coast, acidification occurs when deep, carbon dioxide-rich waters upwell onto the coast. This can wreak havoc on developing shellfish, inhibiting their shells from growing and leading to mass die-offs; this happened, disastrously, at Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries in 2007.

This type of acidification will eventually come for the East Coast, too, says Ryan Wallace, assistant professor and graduate director of environmental studies and sciences at Long Island’s Adelphi University, who studies acidification. But at the moment, East Coast acidification has other sources: agricultural runoff, usually in the form of nitrogen, and human and animal waste entering coastal areas. These excess nutrient loads cause algae to grow, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, Wallace says; but when algae die, they’re consumed by bacteria, whose respiration in turn bumps up CO2 levels in water.

“Unfortunately, this is occurring at the bottom [of the water column], where shellfish organisms live and grow,” Wallace says. Acidification on the East Coast is minutely localized, occurring closest to where nutrients are being released, as well as seasonally; at least one local shellfish farm, on Fishers Island in the Long Island Sound, has contended with its effects.

The second Vycarb pilot, ready to be installed at the East Hampton shellfish hatchery.

Courtesy of Vycarb

Besides CO2, ocean water contains two other forms of dissolved carbon — carbonate (CO3-) and bicarbonate (HCO3) — at all times, at differing levels. At low pH (acidic), CO2 prevails; at medium pH, HCO3 is the dominant form; at higher pH, CO3 dominates. Boudinot’s invention is the first real-time measurement for all three, he says. From the dock at the Navy Yard, his pilot system uses carefully calibrated but low-cost sensors to gauge the water’s pH and its corresponding levels of CO2. When it detects elevated levels of the greenhouse gas, the system mitigates it on the spot. It does this by adding a bicarbonate powder that’s a byproduct of agricultural limestone mining in nearby Pennsylvania. Because the bicarbonate powder is alkaline, it increases the water pH and reduces the acidity. “We drive a chemical reaction to increase the pH to convert greenhouse gas- and acid-causing CO2 into bicarbonate, which is HCO3,” Boudinot says. “And HCO3 is what shellfish and fish and lots of marine life prefers over CO2.”

This de-acidifying “buffering” is something shellfish operations already do to water, usually by adding soda ash (NaHCO3), which is also alkaline. Some hatcheries add soda ash constantly, just in case; some wait till acidification causes significant problems. Generally, for an overly busy shellfish farmer to detect acidification takes time and effort. “We’re out there daily, taking a look at the pH and figuring out how much we need to dose it,” explains John “Barley” Dunne, director of the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery on Long Island. “If this is an automatic system…that would be much less labor intensive — one less thing to monitor when we have so many other things we need to monitor.”

Across the Sound at the hatchery he runs, Dunne annually produces 30 million hard clams, 6 million oysters, and “if we’re lucky, some years we get a million bay scallops,” he says. These mollusks are destined for restoration projects around the town of East Hampton, where they’ll create habitat, filter water, and protect the coastline from sea level rise and storm surge. So far, Dunne’s hatchery has largely escaped the ill effects of acidification, although his bay scallops are having a finicky year and he’s checking to see if acidification might be part of the problem. But “I think it's important to have these solutions ready-at-hand for when the time comes,” he says. That’s why he’s hosting a second, 70-liter Vycarb pilot starting this summer on a dock adjacent to his East Hampton operation; it will amp up to a 50,000 liter-system in a few months.

If it can buffer water over a large area, absolutely this will benefit natural spawns. -- John “Barley” Dunne.

Boudinot hopes this new pilot will act as a proof of concept for hatcheries up and down the East Coast. The area from Maine to Nova Scotia is experiencing the worst of Atlantic acidification, due in part to increased Arctic meltwater combining with Gulf of St. Lawrence freshwater; that decreases saturation of calcium carbonate, making the water more acidic. Boudinot says his system should work to adjust low pH regardless of the cause or locale. The East Hampton system will eventually test and buffer-as-necessary the water that Dunne pumps from the Sound into 100-gallon land-based tanks where larvae grow for two weeks before being transferred to an in-Sound nursery to plump up.

Dunne says this could have positive effects — not only on his hatchery but on wild shellfish populations, too, reducing at least one stressor their larvae experience (others include increasing water temperatures and decreased oxygen levels). “If it can buffer water over a large area, absolutely this will [benefit] natural spawns,” he says.

No one believes the Vycarb model — even if it proves capable of functioning at much greater scale — is the sole solution to acidification in the ocean. Wallace says new water treatment plants in New York City, which reduce nitrogen released into coastal waters, are an important part of the equation. And “certainly, some green infrastructure would help,” says Boudinot, like restoring coastal and tidal wetlands to help filter nutrient runoff.

In the meantime, Boudinot continues to collect data in advance of amping up his own operations. Still unknown is the effect of releasing huge amounts of alkalinity into the ocean. Boudinot says a pH of 9 or higher can be too harsh for marine life, plus it can also trigger a release of CO2 from the water back into the atmosphere. For a third pilot, on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, Vycarb will install yet another system from which Boudinot’s team will frequently sample to analyze some of those and other impacts. “Let's really make sure that we know what the results are,” he says. “Let's have data to show, because in this carbon world, things behave very differently out in the real world versus on paper.”

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a Brooklyn, NY-based veteran freelance journalist covering food and agriculture system, social justice issues, science & the environment, and the places where those topics intersect for The New York Times, The Guardian, the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), Eater, Modern Farmer, USA Today, and other outlets. Find her at lelanargi.com.
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