When we talk about the ocean in relation to climate change, it is usually in reference to the devastating impacts that the latter is having on marine ecosystems. But what is often overlooked is that the ocean can be a powerful solution to some of the worst effects of climate change. The ocean is our planet’s largest carbon sink. It has absorbed approximately 90% of excess heat and 25% of excess carbon emissions, sparing us from even more severe impacts of climate change.
And a healthy ocean will continue to provide crucial opportunities for carbon sequestration. There are a number of potential methods for increasing the ocean’s ability to store carbon. These range from biological approaches such as ecosystem restoration, seaweed cultivation and iron fertilization, to chemical solutions using minerals to lock dissolved carbon dioxide into bicarbonates, as well as electromagnetic approaches that store carbon by running electric currents through seawater.
This is all in addition to the potential emissions reduction benefits from opportunities such as offshore energy production or sustainable ocean-based proteins. A report from the World Resources Institute commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy found that implementing a wide array of ocean-based opportunities could reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions by almost 4 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) by 2030, and by more than 11 billion tonnes CO2e in 2050, compared to business-as-usual projections.
A Capital Need for Ocean Data Solutions
These opportunities require investment in the technologies themselves, as well as in solutions that are directed at improving ocean health, upon which all of this is contingent. While climate-tech startups raised $53.7 billion from venture capital and private equity in 2021, investment in ocean solutions lags far behind. But ocean solutions are climate solutions and should be recognized as such by climate-focused investors.
In addition to investment, the essential ingredient underpinning the success of all these innovations are ocean data and the internet of things (IoT). Data are crucial for understanding how our oceans are changing, which has implications for everything from improving ocean health to measuring sea-level rise, protecting coral reefs, tracking impacts on fisheries, predicting weather variations, and understanding the impacts and ramifications of any new ocean-based technology.
Traditionally, marine monitoring systems have been very expensive, data collection and analysis time-consuming, and the resulting data low-resolution. Ocean observation has been left to the scientific community, governments and NGOs, and it has not been adequately funded. Today less than 5% of the ocean is comprehensively monitored. With so much opportunity for exploration, the ocean is truly the last frontier on the planet.
Modern advancements are enabling the capture, storage, transmission and analysis of ocean data in ways that are more efficient, cost-effective and accurate than previously thought possible. Expensive research buoys are being replaced by inexpensive micro-buoys that can float across the ocean freely and transmit sensor readings through onboard solar power and computing. Oceanic surveys once run by crews of scientists at sea for weeks can now be conducted affordably and autonomously by wind- and solar-powered drones that are circumnavigating the globe. The cost of launching a satellite is a fraction of what it used to be, enabling us to take a closer look at the ocean from above and capture new kinds of ocean data, from monitoring illegal fishing to predicting the landfall and impact of hurricanes and storm swells.
These tools can monitor and measure a variety of parameters which all provide insight into ocean health and changes to the ocean environment. This will enable us to better predict extreme weather events, track shipping emissions, optimize offshore wind and improve sustainable fisheries management – helping us manage climate change and its impacts.
Building a Digital Ecosystem for the Ocean
Several of our portfolio companies are charting a new course in these waters.
Recognizing how traditional ocean exploration practices tend to be uneconomic, environmentally unfriendly and dangerous, Ocean Aero sought a new approach. The company created the world’s first and only environmentally powered autonomous underwater and surface vehicle (AUSV). Dubbed the TRITON, this AUSV collects data both above and below the ocean’s surface and can relay it to users from anywhere. The TRITON operates on wind and solar power and the latest models can operate autonomously for up to nine months at a time. This technology supports numerous ocean research and exploration applications, including water chemistry reads, animal tracking, weather observation and seabed mapping.
Sofar Ocean delivers a global data platform for a variety of end users. The company’s Spotter product is an affordable, solar-powered metocean (meteorological and oceanographic) buoy that collects and transmits real-time data on wave, wind and sea surface temperature and barometric pressure. With more than 1,200 satellite-connected Spotters located throughout the global ocean, Sofar has created the largest open water sensor network, delivering peer-reviewed data for environmental research and governmental applications. The company also leverages this data for its Wayfinder product to benefit the shipping industry. Sofar produces best-in-class weather monitoring and forecasting and planetary-scale datasets that optimize the shipping routes, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
As a growing population consumes more seafood, concerns are mounting about the health and sustainability of the fish in our oceans. Our wild seafood stocks are at extreme risk of depletion beyond return, and overcrowded fish farms pose health concerns for their products. ReelData is addressing these issues by bringing machine learning to the land-based aquaculture sector. The company’s suite of artificial intelligence products for aquaculture systems provide quantifiable visibility into the interdependent variables in overall fish health. With these products, ReelData creates an autonomous feeding system to prevent overfeeding, efficiently measures fish weights and identifies fish stress levels, ultimately yielding a cleaner and safer fish population – and a more ocean-friendly alternative to seafood production.
With the overwhelming volume of vessels navigating open waters, along with the geographic breadth of the ocean, bad actors have literally snuck under the radar. Ships engaged in illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling, pollution and other criminal acts have been able to prosper by turning off their satellite identification systems, thus rendering them undetectable. Unseenlabs is putting a stop to that, using its proprietary satellite-based electromagnetic technology, which can track a wide range of maritime radio emitters and geolocate any vessel at any time of day, anywhere in the world, in any type of weather. The company’s surveillance analytics are valuable for numerous end users, including governments, insurance companies and NGOs, and ensure a more secure, healthier ocean system.
Many large existing and emerging markets require dense 4-dimensional ocean data – e.g., the variation of temperature, salinity, pH, or sequestered carbon over depth and time – which is prohibitively expensive to acquire with today’s ocean monitoring technologies. Apeiron Labs’ solutions aim to reduce ocean data-collection costs by orders of magnitude while greatly expanding the catalog of available data about the ocean. The company is developing low-cost autonomous underwater vehicles which enable comprehensive characterization of our oceans for a variety of economically and societally important challenges. Apeiron’s data as a service model will unlock currently unavailable data, broaden data access and power new commercial and research products for the public, private and academic sectors.
Thanks to these technologies, the World Ocean Database, the oldest and most global database of oceanographic information, has added more data in the last decade than in the last century. Data are at the heart of ocean sustainability, which is in turn at the heart of climate change mitigation. Investments in companies that are building the digital ecosystem will be essential for unlocking the potential for the oceans to continue to serve as a climate change solution.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Economist.