The idea of a floating structure that solves several impending global problems never seemed crazy to me, the plan just developed a step at a time.When we lived on our sailboat[i], we were part of a tight-knit community[ii] that went up and down every 12 hours and 25 minutes. The docks, the boats, the bicycles, and the barbecues, everything rose and fell with the tides. [iii]Except for the satellite dishes. To get a good signal, your dish couldn’t be bobbing around with the waves, so the pilings that kept us from drifting away also kept our receivers locked on the best geo-synched sources for CNN, PBS, Discovery Channel, and so on. Some of what we learned via satellite was a little scary.
There were documentaries on warming oceans, [iv]coral bleaching, sea level rise, super storms, food chain collapse, mass migration, refugee crises leading to global warfare – and that’s just the man-made mayhem. If you changed the channel you could watch an hour or so about the super solar flare that will one-day take out whatever half of our electric grid happens to be in daylight when it hits, or the super volcanoes primed to wipe out a big chunk of life on Earth.
Change the channel again to see a meteor take out all of life as we know it. The computer-generated images of what a planet killing impact would look like were riveting: high definition riveting. I still have nightmares.
But some nightmares evolve into dreams.The first piece of ‘Upwell Oasis’ came to mind while we were watching TV. Our floating home was bumping against the dock and Richard Attenborough was warning us about dying reefs. There are coral larvae almost everywhere and I realized that if our interconnected floating docks were submerged a few feet below the surface, they would soon be covered with coral. What about a floating reef? If we can’t stabilize the conditions where the reefs are, maybe we could move the reefs to a place with stable conditions. We can’t move the existing reefs, of course, but we could build artificial ones. A floating grid-like structure could be trimmed to maintain just the right depth for coral to thrive and the whole thing could be moved as needed to keep it at the right temperature. We could even increase its depth to duck under rough weather.
Problem solved. Except for the financing: this isn’t the kind of thing you see on Kickstarter.
PBS mentioned James Lovelock and Chris Rapley. They had this great idea of using huge floating pipes like vertical drinking straws to create artificial upwells of cold, nutrient-rich water. The open ocean is like a desert, but it doesn’t lack water, it’s missing the minerals and other nutrients that keep stubbornly drifting away from the surface. Wherever natural upwells bring nutrients up from the depths they create enormous algae blooms. The algae and other phytoplankton pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, release oxygen and use the carbon to build more phytoplankton. The tiny plants provide a feast for tiny critters that attract bigger and bigger critters creating an explosion of life. All that biological activity creates biological debris and a whole lot of hydro-carbons rain down to the seafloor as marine snow. Lovelock and Rapley’s pipes would do exactly the same thing and, as a bonus, the cooler water would lower surface temperatures. Lower water temps reduces the intensity of hurricanes and the like. That’s a big deal if your family farm is one cat 5 hurricane away from being washed away.
It’s quite brilliant, really. I imagine the surfaces of these pipes would accumulate all sorts of barnacles and corals and eventually create a vertical reef. It one way to increase reef habitat. Imagine the snorkeling!
The pumps are powered by wave action, but the pipes would need to be very big and quite long. And to change the climate, there would have to be hundreds of thousands of them. Of course, there would be all sorts of unforeseen consequences which would require adaptation, mitigation, and so on. Obviously the pipes would also need to be maintained. Brilliant, but expensive. Which brings us back to: Who’s going to pay for that? Especially at a time when we’ll be trying to help a billion refugees retreat from the rising oceans. And that’s a serious question: Where are all those people going to go?
Now my life wasn’t all about TV. I had a day job, expensive hobbies, an evolving family and we lived on a boat that needed to be sailed at least occasionally. But we took breaks.
The Scripps Institute has a Floating Instrument Platform called FLIP. It’s a 108-meter spar buoy that floats like a straw with a fishing-weight at one end. FLIP has a crew. FLIP carries scientists who use this rock-steady platform to learn all sorts of things about the ocean around them. And FLIP can weather whatever weather it must for months at a time. Flip made me think about these floating structures as homes, rather than un-manned buoys. Management and maintenance become ongoing activities if you’ve got folks on site. People can assess performance and make real time changes to get the most effective results. And they can fix small things before they cascade into sinking disappointments. People living on site make it possible.
I know: I just added a penthouse to the basic floating straw with a paperclip idea. Who in the name of Return-On-Investment is going to pay for that?Anybody who likes sushi.
Seriously. In between the Nat Geo and Science Channel specials there were a few episodes of ‘Deadliest Catch’ and some documentaries on factory ships like the ‘Alaska Ocean.’ Fisheries are declining at a time when we need them most.
So, here’s the dream: a stable, sea-going platform about the size of an apartment-building that pumps cold water up from the depths to create upwelling. We’ll call it an Upwell. The folks on board harvest some of the fish that the bloom creates while measuring every conceivable variable they can quantify. The fishery feeds the folks on board and a few thousand more on shore while the science they do helps them upgrade the upwell and design a better model. Carbon capture and surface cooling become by-products of a sustainable fishery that provides the cash to fund construction. Selling the fish pays for the project while facilitating the science. That will allow us to try all sorts of strategies to make the Upwell successful.
One example of where measurement and analysis, trial and error may lead is dealing with the effects of increasing marine snow on the ocean floor and the waters just above it. It may turn out that operating an upwell causes dead zones in the deep where the oxygen levels drop too low to sustain life. We may want to pump oxygenated water down to give the crabs and other critters a healthy environment as well. And that adds crab to the menu.
The goal is to create a sustainable, biologically diverse Oasis in the desert of the open ocean. One Upwell would capture some carbon, cool the surface a little, and provide a refuge for a few displaced families. I think the challenging and rewarding work of managing a fishery and doing some cutting-edge science might be more attractive to a lot of folks being displaced by rising seas. And the fishery would pay for the structure. The whole enterprise quickly becomes self-supporting. And scalable.
The first Upwell will be an experiment. If it proves the concept by paying for itself and creating enough capital to build a second generation, the third generation could be a dozen Upwells. And there’s my pipe dream.While not quite as complicated as the ‘simple idea’ of putting a satellite in orbit, Upwells will create whole new industries that will bring familiar disciplines together in unprecedented ways.
How, exactly will all this come together?
That’s what we’re asking you.
How deep should water be pumped from? What are the best mechanisms for turning wave action into pumping action? How do we improve on existing oil rig technology to safely house families, communities, cities? What are obvious and not-so obvious negatives? How do we manage a fishery to benefit the whole planet as well as the folks fleeing rising tides?
There are a million more questions we hope to answer by putting our heads together and then building a series of prototypes.