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Blizzards of the Deep — Part 2

Red Tides

There are sometimes conditions at sea that favor the growth of algal soup — calm seas, sunlight, sediments — such that the population of algae explodes to millions per liter of water. It grows so dense that it is dangerous to many fish, clogging their gills and mouths. When the type of algae is red, it can produce what is called a “red tide” — and hundreds of tons of floating fish carcasses. As the bloom exhausts its food and dies, the algal cells sink to the bottom, smothering anything living on the seabed.

Overactive algae also tend to concentrate bacteria up the food chain as they are consumed by shellfish, crabs, and baby turtles. Mussels can easily eat over 50 million cells per hour, storing and concentrating the bacteria. Outbreaks of permanent paralysis and other diseases in coastal cities have been traced to this shellfish toxin.

As a dilute soup, the algae are life-givers, but as a red tide they are deadly. A combination of warming oceans, sewage and soils from rivers, discarded by-catch and dying fish is providing optimal conditions to make such tides more frequent.

Bottom Trawls

A bottom trawl is designed to run close to the seabed. Sometimes it is weighted and just drags and other times it may use rollers or wheels to move along the sea floor. It goes after fish that linger near the bottom like plaice, sole, grouper, and flounder, but will also catch non-commercial fish — by-catch — such as manta rays and moray eels without specifically targeting them. In marine biologist Callum Roberts describes being aboard a Costa Rican long-liner at Playa del Coco as it went in search of mahi-mahi (dolphin fish or dorado) for the North American market:

In many beam trawls there are “tickler chains” set ahead of the net mouth to scare up fish that hug the bottom. Moving along at the speed of the trawling boat, foot-ropes and chains slice off or bruise sea fans, corals and sponges and chop down whole meadows of seagrass and forests of kelp in search of their prey. Sometimes they catch large boulders and roll them across the reefs, breaking apart huge coral chunks.

Trawlers churn up organic matter and minerals on the bottom, leaving a dense plume, some of which will surface to feed plankton blooms but more will bury bottom feeders under a muddy rain. A small trawler fitted with two twenty-five-foot-wide nets and a chain that cuts an inch into the seabed can raise approximately two thousand tons of sediment per hour of trawling, of which over two hundred tons will remain in suspension for days.

Six million square miles of ocean is being fished this way every year. Some of the same areas of reefs are fished five or more times every day. Callum Roberts says that is more than 15,000 square miles of dead, damaged and dying bottom life every day, an area the size of Europe or America every year.

A global moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling was proposed to the UN General Assembly in 2006. Roberts says the measure “came within a whisker of being passed but was vetoed at the last minute by the Icelandic delegation. A nation of three hundred thousand people stymied the introduction of protection critical to the survival of deep sea life.”

Seabed Teslas

Something similar is happening now with regard to deep seabed mining. The debate over whether deep sea mining has a place in an environmentally and socially sustainable “blue” economy is stymieing ocean regulation.

Proponents argue that we will need resources from the ocean to transition to a low-carbon economy. To meet the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, metal demand for electric-vehicle batteries will have to increase more than tenfold by 2050. Opponents fear it will devastate the last untouched wilderness on the planet.

Potato-sized polymetallic nodules, which contain nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, lie on the seabed at depths of 4–6 km (2.5–3.7 miles) in an area of the Pacific called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. These ores are in demand for batteries and wiring in electric vehicles. A dozen countries, including China, India, Japan, Russia and the UK, have granted exploration contracts regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

These countries plan to send deep diving drone miners the size of a combine harvester trawling the seabeds to remove the top layer of sediment, pump it through a pipeline to a ship, which then separates the nodules and discharges the sediment into the ocean.

A major concern is that the sediment plume could carry for great distances, suffocating marine life. Another concern is that algal blooms at the surface could be fed by the mineral-rich discharges. Still another is that the quantity and diversity of biological species in the deep sea is far higher than previously thought and entire ecosystems could be destroyed by mining activities before many species are even named.

Michael Lodge, secretary-general of the ISA, which should be the agency protecting the ocean, says: “If you said that no industry can start until we know what is going to happen from that industry, then that’s an entirely circular argument that would prevent any industry in the history of humanity from starting.”

“We have a good idea of what the impacts will be,” Lodge says. “They are by no means as catastrophic as environmental groups would have us believe; they are predictable and manageable.” The industry argues that biodiversity losses from surface mining are likely to be much worse, given the greater abundance of wildlife in many areas.

With global recycling rates for electronic waste at only around 20%, a large amount of valuable metals that could go into electric cars and wind generators is being wasted. The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition says we should be talking about refusing, reusing and recycling rather than opening up a whole new frontier of environmental degradation to feed a throwaway culture.

The industry agrees that recycling should be maximized, but says this will not supply the huge additional volume of metal needed to manufacture a billion new electric vehicles. “You can’t recycle what you don’t have,” a spokesman says. “What we first of all need to do is to have a massive injection of new battery materials put into the system.”

Which would we rather — more electric cars or more octopuses? What do we do when reversing climate change conflicts with preserving biodiversity? When we speak of sustainability, what is it we are trying to sustain? Our ability to supply fish oils to cats and cattle? A seafood-consuming human population of 8 billion and counting? Or might we rather, at the end of it all, have the web of life that provides the air we breathe and balances the temperature of our planet to within the range we require to survive?

Clean Coal

When we hear politicians from coaling nations like the USA, Poland, Australia and Canada calling for “clean coal,” the technology they are generally referring to is a geoengineering scheme, often debunked in these pages, called Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS. In its purest form, which litters the landscape with billion-dollar federal boondoggles initiated by every hapless and misguided president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. CCS most often means putting CO2 scrubbers on coal stacks, liquifying the gas, and pumping it somewhere… away. Because the capture process is technically challenging, and therefore expensive, massive taxpayer subsidies are the only way that polluters could ever be made, and indeed delighted, to use CCS, but the bigger problem is that back end of the process.

I have attended many lectures by university, government, and corporate researchers who study and promote CCS, and none of them has a good answer when it comes to disposal of liquified carbon dioxide. Some say it can be sold to enhance growth in large-scale greenhouses or as an ingredient in carbonated beverages. I call that “catch and release,” kind of like digging a deep hole and then filling it again.

Some say there are plenty of abandoned oil wells and coal shafts — we can just dump the liquid CO2 back from whence it came, but there are two problems with that approach. First, these repositories are not in the same places the powerplants and factories are, so the refrigerated CO2 would have to travel long distances in expensive pipelines, and second, the entire system — stack scrubbers, pipelines, and burial shafts — leaks. Estimates for just the repository leakage is 10% per year, or 100% in ten years. Catch and release.

Lately the darling of the CCS crowd is a wacky notion of deep ocean disposal. Since most of the world’s population resides within 200 miles of the coast, why not send liquid, or even gaseous, CO2 out to a pumping station that would inject it a mile deep. Once it crossed through twilight and entered the Midnight Zone, it would freeze and sink, so the theory goes, and rise to trouble the atmosphere nevermore. Offshore Ocean Mechanical Thermal Energy Conversion (OMTEC) platforms could be where the CO2 gets pumped down, using the same pipes that convey warm surface waters to the deep.

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Except, instead of burying bottom dwellers now in trawler mudstorms, we would be smothering them in a continuously enlarging blanket of CO2, and as that is transformed by seawater to carbonic acid, it would dissolve the shells of crustaceans, disintegrate corals, and make the ocean floor too toxic for even a Moray Eel.

These disposal schemes also plague the plan for a massive roll-out of BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture and Storage) that would run biomass power plants much the same way you run a coal or diesel plant — fuel in one end and pollution out the other. All current BECCS schemes are planning to pump CO2 to either deep land or deep ocean “repositories.” Those of us in the biochar world — environmental scientists, waste disposal experts, permaculturists and the like — prefer evolving BECCS terminology into slightly more apt, if even less elegant, acronyms (and technologies) like WBEBCS (Waste Biomass Energy to Biochar Capture and Storage) or PyCCS (Pyrolysis Carbon Capture and Storage — which might include non-recyclable plastics). PyCCS, coined by the Ithaka Institut for Carbon Intelligence in Switzerland, is starting to gain traction in the scientific literature.

The advantage of biochar, apart from its use as a superior fertilizer, concrete and asphalt additive, and building block for bioplastics, biochemicals, and the circular economy, is that it doesn’t have all the disposal problems of CO2. Even if you just dumped it in the ocean, which would be like dumping gold or diamonds, all you would get would be more coral reefs.

Plastic Storms

There are now microplastics found in one-third of fish caught and examined. When a 2015 expedition to the Mariana Trench took samples of crustaceans on the ocean floor to analyze, they discovered that even those had plastic in their guts. Microplastics have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and affect behavior. Reports of fish stranding on beaches, their bellies filled with plastics, are becoming more common.

In 1960 there were 15 million tons of plastic in the world. By 2020, we were adding 400 million tons per year. The plastic entering the ocean is doubling every 5 years, so by 2050, the world will add 1.2 billion tons per year, barring sudden de-industrialization. Today there is one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050 or sooner, there will be more plastic than fish.

And yet, each year, millions of tons of plastic are flushed into the ocean. Sea turtles will eat it as they browse the floating islands of sargassum. Seagulls, terns, herons, and penguins will pick the colorful bits off beaches and feed them to their chicks. Dolphins and salmon will eat smaller fish who browsed plastic from coral reefs. Many of these indestructible polymers are known cancer-causers but the full toxicity of all of them — and the new kinds being introduced every year — is still unknown. For sea birds, whales, and fish that fill up their stomachs with indigestible plastic debris, or sea animals that tangle in abandoned plastic nets, six-pack rings, or floating ropes and fabrics, we don’t need to know how toxic they are, because these victims will die of starvation, strangulation, and defenseless predation.

There is something uniquely stupid about designing a throw-away item to last forever and to be deadly, generation after generation, even when it falls like fresh snow upon the water.

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Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.

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