Last night I had the honor to participate in a great New York event—the announcement of the winners of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, presented by Foreign Affairs LIVE. Two years ago, the XPrize Foundation announced that they would offer $2 million to any private team that could do something many had considered impossible: create a device to reliably measure the acidity of the deep ocean, while surviving pressures equivalent to hundreds of atmospheres. The big winner was Sunburst Sensors, a tiny company based in Missoula, Montana, which came in first place for both accuracy and affordability.
Of the many catastrophic consequences of climate change, ocean acidification may be the worst. The oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, produce fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe. They are also the planet’s biggest carbon sink—absorbing 50 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, absorbing all that carbon is dramatically altering the ocean’s pH balance. Since the industrial revolution began, average acidity of the upper ocean has jumped 30 percent. The ocean is now more acidic than it has been for fifty million years. Unless CO2 emissions decline, ocean acidity could surge another 100 percent by the end of the century.
This slow-motion disaster threatens the survival of ocean life. Acidification is already stressing shellfish, corals, and plankton whose shells or skeletons are made of calcium carbonate. If these small creatures disappear, ocean food webs will collapse. Simultaneously, the sea temperatures are rising, as the ocean stores 90 percent of the energy from the warming Earth. Over the past century, the mean ocean surface temperature has increased 0.7 degrees Celsius. By 2100, it will rise another 3 degrees. Meanwhile, several hundred “dead zones”—areas with insufficient oxygen to support marine life—have emerged throughout the world.
This triple whammy —ocean acidification, warming, and deoxygenation—is placing unprecedented stress on species. Microbes, plankton, corals, mollusks, fish, and marine mammals are struggling to adapt to new ocean biochemistry, ecosystems, food webs, currents, and circulation. Unless humanity reverses course, the predicted “Sixth Extinction” will unfold not only on land, but in the sea.
The first step in mitigating and hopefully reversing these trends is better scientific understanding about the health (and sickness) of the ocean. Fortunately, U.S. and international policymakers are getting the message. In June 2014, national governments, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations gathered in Washington for an “Our Ocean” Summit hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. They endorsed the creation of a Global Oceans Acidification Observing Network. When fully developed, this would be a global network of sensors capable of monitoring pH levels along coasts and in the deep ocean, permitting scientists around the world to generate vast data about trends and variations in acidity and their impact on local species and ecosystems. Ultimately, such a network could function like an oceanic “Fitbit,” taking the pulse of this living system and providing early warning of emerging problems. The limiting factor in realizing this dream has been technology.
Here is where the XPrize comes in. The XPrize Foundation, the brainchild of entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, operates on a simple premise: namely, that in a world of rapid technological change, things once considered impossible are no longer so. The only thing missing is an incentive to correct for market failure—plus some healthy competition. The Ocean Health XPrize is only the latest in a long line of contests. They include the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which promises $30 million for the first team to land a private robot on the Moon, and the Quallcom Tricorder XPRIZE, which offers $10 million for the first health diagnostic tool of the sort that Dr. McCoy carried around on Star Trek.
To find out more about the entrants in the 2015 Ocean Health XPrize competition, check out this video of last night’s event. It includes comments from the prize’s benefactor, the philaphropist Wendy Schmidt, as well as a conversation on the health of the global oceans moderated by Paul Bunje of XPrize, featuring Sherri Goodman (CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership), Ghislaine Maxwell (founder of the TerraMar Project), Richard Spinrad (chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA), and yours truly.
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