Dalhousie University
Canada First Research Excellence
Fund 2022 candidate
The ocean could
save us
Enhancing the ocean’s ability to thwart climate change
Ruth Musgrave
There is a strong argument for looking at the ocean for carbon dioxide removal. Its capacity is enormous and, because the processes may correct the acidification of the ocean that we’ve already caused, there is cautious optimism. But we need to fully understand the implications and impacts before we move forward.
Canada Research Chair in Physical Oceanography
Dalhousie University

Transformational funding

There is evidence that the ocean’s ability to filter carbon from the atmosphere is changing. As a result, global climate goals are likely well off the mark. With support from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Dalhousie and its academic and industry partners will find solutions and make Canada a global leader in the science to avert climate change.

Dr. Ruth Musgrave understands the ocean’s depths, how it swirls and mixes, its waves and tides. As a physicist, she maps its churning dynamics with equations and models that illuminate the forces that lie beneath. Currently, her research is focused on how to harness the ocean’s power to help humanity avoid climate change disaster.

Like most scientists, she is becoming increasingly concerned that cutting emissions will not be enough to keep the planet within two degrees of warming, a temperature-increase red line that, if surpassed, will result in widespread ecosystem disruption and failure.

The science of ocean carbon dioxide removal

“So, it will be necessary to remove carbon dioxide from atmosphere in one way or another,” says Dr. Musgrave. “There have been lots of ideas proposed. Most are land-based, things like reforestation and coastal wetlands restoration. But there is a very strong argument for looking at ocean carbon dioxide removal because it’s the Earth’s largest carbon reservoir by far.”

Watch Dr. Ruth Musgrave discuss the research necessary to enhance the ocean’s ability to absorb and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Planetary Technologies and Dal research team
The Dalhousie research team working with Planetary Technologies to remove a gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Left to right: Drs. Douglas Wallace, Dariia Atamanchuk, Ruth Musgrave, Hugh MacIntyre.

Removing a gigaton of carbon

To turn argument into reality, Dr. Musgrave is part of a team of Dalhousie researchers working with the company, Planetary Technologies, in assessing the potential for enhancing the ocean’s ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company recently won the Musk Foundation’s $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal Milestone Award for its innovations.

Planetary’s carbon removal technology is focused on adding alkalinity to seawater to boost its ability to dissolve carbon dioxide. Over billions of years, the ocean has eroded rock, adding alkalinity to its waters. The alkaline substances in the water have reacted with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and absorbed it.

But for the past 200 years, humanity has acidified the ocean through the burning of fossil fuels, reducing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Through targeted restoration of alkalinity to the ocean, Planetary Technology plans to significantly boost its ability to extract the molecule, projecting it will eventually be able to remove one gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere every year.

Ensuring the science is safe

“There is a lot of cautious optimism about the idea of ocean alkalinity enhancement because it mimics the natural geochemical processes that have caused the ocean to take up so much carbon and to be such a large reservoir of carbon in the past,” says Dr. Musgrave.

While she says adding alkalinity has the potential to repair damage, she notes there is still a lot to understand. To pursue the science safely, she is working with Planetary Technologies to conduct experiments in Dalhousie’s Aquatron, Canada’s largest university aquatic research centre. This facility is allowing the research team to safely scale up from initial experiments in beakers to better understand how reactions will take place at sea.

“Ruth’s group is actually generating a model of the Aquatron and doing what we intend to do in the ocean on a smaller scale,” says Dr. Will Burt, Planetary Technology’s senior marine chemist.

“The Aquatron is perfect because we have the actual tools that we would use in the real ocean, deployed right here, and we have the ability to add a pulse of alkalinity into the water and watch it disperse and dilute and model it. This gives us a chance to try it out in a controlled setting.”

Deploying sensors to measure carbon removal
Setting sensors to measure carbon removal reactions in Dalhousie University’s Aquatron, Canada’s largest university aquatic research facility.

Transformational funding

Dalhousie University and its research partners L’Université du Québec à Rimouski, Université Laval and Memorial University are seeking support from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to ensure the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is accounted for in global climate goals. Together, the universities are the world’s most productive ocean research team, capable of bringing the most sophisticated science to the Earth’s most pressing challenge.

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