Kelp Farming | The Big Blue Climate Solution

Washington (ONGC) Analysis | January 27, 2022, by Noreen Wise, Founder & CEO of Our New Green Culture, and author; Image Credit AdobeStock

Kelp is a type of brown sea alga commonly referred to as seaweed. There are 30 different kelp species. Kelp is known to be the hardiest, most resilient species on Earth. It grows quickly, two to three feet a day, making it one the fastest growing species in the world. It will shoot up to 15 feet in one season (magnolia trees takes 10 years to reach the height of 15 feet). Kelp farming does’t harm the environment. It requires no freshwater, arable land, fertilizer or pesticides. 

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Kelp is a staple in several Asian countries, Korea and Japan particularly. It is packed full of nutrients and antioxidants: iodine, carotenoids, flavonoids, calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K1.

Rich in Iodine, for example, kelp helps our human thyroid function properly in regulating our hormones, including our daily energy level, as well as keeping our brains sharp. These beneficial vitamins and antioxidants also benefit marine species. Thousands of marine species that feed on kelp hide in the kelp forests to protect themselves from predators.

Our planet’s terrestrial forests, its dense biodiversity and its large expanses of healthy soil, are massive carbon sinks that billions of people around the world are working hard to conserve and restore. Rewild the world! Tragically, though, in just a few hours, extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes can obliterate years of conservation efforts, releasing many millions of tons of stored carbon into the atmosphere, further exasperating the climate crisis, and propelling us towards the tipping point. In light of this major climate challenge, scientists have been researching how to scale up kelp forests in our enormous oceans, which make up 70% of the earth’s surface.

Safe carbon storage underwater:

Kelp is a cold water species that thrives in temperatures below 68ºF. According to the findings outlined by National Geographic, Scientists have determined that there are 18.5 million square ocean miles that are conducive to kelp farming that would in turn increase carbon sequestration significantly, if only kelp forests could be scaled up properly. Thankfully, as mentioned, kelp forest grow quickly and are full grown in a single season rather than 30 years like trees. And unbelievably, a kelp forest can absorb much more carbon than a terrestrial forest, 20 times more carbon, in fact. Thus, scientists and innovators are rushing to discover a way to make this work on a mass scale.

This major carbon sequestration strategy is very similar to large terrestrial projects. Thomas Crowther, founder of Restor, recently advocated for a remarkable biodiversity plan in his Countdown TED Talk. Crowther’s goal is to follow global biodiversity projects around the world, so that we can all learn from each other. Restor’s open data platform network tracks tree and biodiversity projects across the globe on the .9 billion hectares that have been deemed most suitable for habitat restoration. Perhaps kelp cultivation projects should be tracked the same way.

Kelp helps purify the ocean water, the same way trees absorb pollution in the air. Kelp also dramatically decreases ocean acidification which occurs when the ocean water absorbs carbon dioxide. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, 170 years ago, our oceans have absorbed 25% of the 555 billion tons of carbon (GtC) that have been emitted into the atmosphere. That’s 138.75 GtC, which has warmed the ocean temperature so significantly that 22 % of our ice glaciers have melted. The elevated ocean temperature is also the force behind some of our extreme weather events: more ferocious hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and rain storms. The warmer ocean temperatures result in increased evaporation, which in turn case there to be much greater participation when it storms.

Kelp farming:

Kelp has three main parts very similar to a terrestrial plant’s structure:

  • the holdfast that grips and anchors and allows kelp to move with the water (similar to root)
  • the stipe (stem-like)
  • the blade (similar to leaf)

Several different types of kelp are grown together to create a forest. Washington University created a brochure that promotes the “Power Of Kelp.” The pamphlet outlined the ease and simplicity of cultivating a kelp forest:

  • Create a grid-shaped network of buoys and grow lines.
  • Seed kelp spores onto the grow lines between the buoys.
  • Place the structure into the water.
  • Nothing else needed…

Kelp farming is much easier and less expensive than terrestrial farming. The only constants that need monitoring are water temperature and storms. 

Small scale kelp farming has successfully thrived for decades, supplying product for many of our everyday food staples, vitamin supplements, medications, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.

The long term goal of many scientists focused on scaling-up carbon storage to keep the global temperature below 1.5ºC, is to clump together and sink the harvested kemp into the deep sea where it can be safely stashed away for many thousands of years. The trick is in finding a way to sink the kelp into the deep sea. No one has figured that out yet. Stay tuned!

Rising ocean temperatures have made growing kelp forests in some ocean areas no longer a viable option. The water along North and South Carolina’s coastline, on average hits a high of 80ºF in the summer, way beyond kelp’s limit of 68ºF. New Jersey’s shoreline water temperature is 74ºC in August. We have to go all the way to Cape Cod to see a temperature just below the kelp max, in this case 66ºF.

As one door closes, another opens.

The Hudson Bay and the Arctic ocean temperatures have also warmed, and now have thriving kelp forests with very little intervention. These two locales seem like they could possibly be ideal locations to grow massive kelp forests and then sink them to the floor. The Hudson Bay is shallow, with a maximum depth of only 886 feet. The Arctic ocean is much deeper, with a max depth of 17,881 feet. 

The wetlands on the southwest side of Hudson Bay have an astonishing amount of carbon stored in the soil. The sector is called a peatland, rich in carbon after thousands of years of decaying plants have been layered on top of each other, untouched by humans for the most part.

Hopefully this pristine far north will stay peaceful and quiet, and remain an ideal cool spot for kelp farming.

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