By Bill Weir, CNN’s Chief Climate Correspondent
(CNN) — Marty Odlin just wants to go fishing.
As a child growing up in the Gulf of Maine, he hopped from boat to boat on the Portland dock humming with the kind of energy that once transported hundreds of thousands of pounds of cod into the harbor every day.
“People make money,” Odlin sadly told CNN. “People are taking risks. Starting a business, building boats, making nets. Just a constant activity.”
Even when he went to study robotics at Dartmouth College and Earth systems at Columbia University, he still dreamed of his own mackerel rig and even chose the name — Running Tide.
But when it came time to take out a boat loan, “I can’t do math,” said Marty. “Climate risk is very high. No mackerel. They all swam to Iceland.”
Overfishing wiped out cod abundance in the 1980s and 90s, until catch limits were finally reduced by 95%. But while fishing has always been a boom-or-bust game, what keeps Odlin awake is the worry that the boom will end forever. Not only because the water is so warm that they’re finding more and more Caribbean trigger fish in lobster traps, but because every tonne of fossil fuel burned is also making the oceans more acidic.
“The ocean is like a womb for fish. All the eggs are on the outside, and the explosion comes when the ocean chemistry is right for the species,” he said. “If it’s just overfishing, we’re going to see stocks rebound, and we haven’t seen a rebound yet. And I think it’s pretty clear that it’s just because of how drastically we’re changing ocean chemistry. And I was like, ‘What am I going to do about that? ‘ And you’ll either give up or get a little angry, you know?”
Instead of chasing a mackerel monster on a ship called Running Tide, Odlin started a company called Running Tide to help solve the problem.
At first only Odlin and a friend sat on a bucket and poured engineering ideas on a blackboard they found on the side of the road. Now they have billionaire investors and teams of engineers, biologists, agronomists, fabricators, software developers, data specialists and ship captains. Together they tried to link some kind of monster — carbon dioxide.
“This is Godzilla,” said Odlin. “It’s burning the forest. It’s stealing our fish. It’s destroying our crops. It’s costing our farmers. Everything that is free and fun is getting destroyed.
Thousands of buoys and seaweed micro forest
“Carbon sequestration and sequestration,” or CCS, is not a term that goes off the tongue at dinner parties — even in an age of unnaturally increasing disasters.
But if humanity is to hope to maintain a habitable planet, science agrees that billions of tons of CO2 must be removed from the air and oceans and locked down, fast. This means CCS will have to grow from an industry worth a few billion by 2022 to a trillion dollars per year by 2030.
The Department of Energy recently announced a $3.5 billion program to accelerate the development of four direct air capture facilities across the United States — factory-sized vacuum cleaners, each capable of capturing one million tons of CO2 per year.
But given that the world’s most successful carbon removal facility by far — Iceland’s Climeworks — can degrade less than 4,000 tonnes per year, it may take decades before that goal is reached.
On the private sector side, Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify is one of the tech companies that has pledged to buy $1 billion worth of carbon credits from startups like Running Tide, in the hope that other companies will follow suit. And on Earth Day 2021, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the $100 million XPRIZE to eliminate carbon.
“Let’s say you think a 99.9% chance of adding all the CO2 to the oceans and atmosphere is going to be okay, so there’s a 0.1% chance of disaster,” Musk said while livestreaming his XPRIZE announcement on YouTube from an undisclosed forest. “Well, there is only one Earth and even 0.1% chance of disaster, why take that risk?”
Musk said he was looking for the smartest, most cost-effective way and market to capture carbon. More than a year later, Running Tide and its fisherman/CEO were among the finalists. While some inventors brought designs for large chemical or mechanical engines, Odlin hoped to take advantage of and enhance the natural cycles and design features of the ocean with which he was well acquainted. Running Tide may employ a number of engineers with PhDs and patents, but their tentpole technology is oysters, limestone, and seaweed.
The main idea is a network of thousands of buoys floating in the North Atlantic, each holding a microforest of seaweed and several pounds of limestone. Seaweed will scavenge carbon from the air and water, and limestone will serve as an antacid for the surface layers of the ocean — just like Tums for the oceans.
Small robotic form, the solar panels of the buoy will power cloud-connected cameras and instruments to monitor seaweed growth and water chemistry, critical data feeds for future carbon markets.
When a seaweed plant is cut, it sinks into the deep ocean where all the CO2 that the plant absorbs will remain buried in the sediment for thousands of years.
The company is also building a floating oyster farm, which filters millions of gallons of seawater while growing a marketable source of protein and capturing carbon in the shell at the same time.
A few oysters on a plate or a pile of seaweed on the beach can seem like small arms against the carbon “Godzilla,” but Odlin dreams of harnessing their natural power with the latest biotech and building it on a grand scale at the same scale. Maine is anchored where his ancestors built ships to defeat Hitler.
“We were raised with these stories of heroism and sacrifice. Well, now is the time,” said Odlin. “What are we waiting for? All this anxiety, all the frustration people have, it’s just because we haven’t been released. I’m very optimistic when it comes to the potential of the American spirit. We’ve just been released.”
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