Elizabeth Kolbert on ocean-based carbon removal
Pulitzer prize–winning author reflects on methods that could enable the ocean to store more carbon, and what that could mean for marine ecosystems and sea life.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
A silver carp weighing as much as a sack of potatoes hurled itself nearly 10 feet into the air, slamming straight into Elizabeth Kolbert's shin.
Kolbert, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and environmental reporter for the New Yorker, experienced the stinging encounter while on a 30-foot skiff with two fishermen, venturing down the Illinois River south of Chicago. The offending carp was just one of dozens that were thrusting their bodies out of the river toward the boat-possibly spooked by its outboard motor-only to be caught midair and hauled aboard.
"They came flying out of the water. It happened very fast," says Kolbert. "I was lucky that it was not very painful-I've heard alarming stories of people who ended up in the hospital with a broken eye socket or broken nose."
At the time, Kolbert was on the river field-reporting for her latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, published in April 2021. This national bestseller on the climate crisis, which she has described as a book "about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems," dives deep into the subtext of the unintended consequences that can arise when humans intervene with nature. One notable case in point: in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imported silver and other Asian carp species to U.S. to control algae and aquatic weeds in the Mississippi River. But the voracious invaders, which are perpetually hungry owing to their lack of a stomach, quickly began out-competing other fish. They decimated their native food supplies and left a path of ecosystem death and destruction in their wake. Today, Asian carp make up two-thirds of all fish biomass in some areas of the Mississippi River basin.
Contract fishermen, like those Kolbert had been traveling with during the flying carp ambush, are now hired by states in the region to pull as many Asian carp from area rivers as possible. It's part of a broader control strategy to keep the fish from reaching the Great Lakes, where they could pose a grave threat to the area's $7 billion fishing industry.
Did anyone 60 years ago anticipate that this invasive species from China would wreak so much havoc in U.S. waterways? Likely not. But it does speak to an underlying message that Kolbert infuses in much of her writing: when it comes to messing with nature, be careful what you wish for.
That sentiment has particular relevance to a critical question facing oceanographers today: Can the global ocean-itself facing warming, acidification, and other problems perpetuated by the climate crisis-be modified to slow climate change without causing all sorts of ugliness for marine ecosystems and sea life?
There are a number of ocean-intervention ideas floating out there that could enable the ocean to store more carbon, though the consequences of doing any of them are unclear. One concept is piping atmospheric carbon into the deep sea. The thought is that if carbon dioxide could be scrubbed from the atmosphere, it could be injected into the porous volcanic basalt lying below the seafloor. There, the interaction between the liquid carbon and basalt would form limestone, which, in time, would mineralize and convert the carbon into a solid. Another idea is adding alkalinity to the ocean, which increases ocean pH levels, thereby enabling greater uptake of carbon dioxide. The technique, more formally known as ocean alkalinity enhancement, could involve scattering "Tums-like" material into the ocean from ships. Kolbert sees the theoretical promise of these types of interventions, but she's wary.
"We're at a fork in the road," she says. "We know that if we don't intervene in a lot of these systems, there are going to be terrible consequences. We also know that if we do intervene, we don't know what the consequences will be."
Kolbert is spot on-we don't know what we don't know. And it's this kind of uncertainty, she suggests, that puts us "between a rock and a hard place." But the larger looming issue in her mind is the problem of scale, and how-without significant financial investments-these and other techniques could be carried out at large enough scale to make a meaningful difference in the fight against climate change.
"There's no funding," she points out. "When I was writing Under a White Sky, in every chapter there was some huge problem, and there was very little money going into solving it. When you think about the kind of money that we spend on creating the problem versus the kind of money we're spending on thinking about solutions, the imbalance is horrific."
But Kolbert believes that one particular intervention could make a difference: putting a price on carbon. She's no stranger to the idea-in fact, she currently pays Swiss start-up Climeworks a per-ton fee to remove some of her own carbon emissions.
"There's venture capital going into a lot of forms of carbon removal right now in the hope that one day someone's going to be willing to pay $100 a ton or whatever it is," she says. "So far, the market for that is pretty limited."
Kolbert also sees potential in interventions aimed at restoring ailing coastal ecosystems, like seagrass beds, which are known to store a lot of carbon. They may in fact be important carbon sinks, yet according to the National Science Foundation, the Earth loses at least 1.5 percent of the seagrass meadows each year from dredging and poor water quality.
"How much carbon they actually store-I defer to the experts," says Kolbert. "But I think that any of the moves that have a restoration component are sort of good in and of themselves."
More broadly, Kolbert can't overstate the need to proceed with caution when it comes to intervening in the ocean. That means understanding the potential impacts a given intervention will have on marine ecosystems, sea life, and human lives and generating enough information to make informed decisions. As WHOI chemist Ken Buesseler expressed in a recent Oceanus story, "If you don't do the responsible oceanography to look at consequences, it's pretty easy to make a big mess."
Kolbert echoes that sentiment. "It's the responsibility of the scientific community to lay out all the possible risks to the extent that they can," she says.
But suppose that ocean scientists do their due diligence and help inform interventions that turn out to be wildly successful in slowing climate change. What then? Do we end up with yet another unintended consequence-namely, people becoming complacent in their attempts to reduce emissions?
That particular outcome doesn't seem to worry Kolbert: "I have to say that our record of cutting carbon emissions is so bad at this point, it's hard to see how it could get worse."
For all the talk of unintended consequences-like invasive fish from Asia flooding the Mississippi River-when it comes to the ocean, Kolbert does see some hope.
"The oceans are huge, and there's tremendous resilience," she notes. "The question really is whether the stresses we're going to put on the ocean are so great that we prevent it from rebounding."