All along the shores— and in the sea itself are marine plants quite unlike the flowers and trees that you are accustomed to seeing on land. These plants — which act more like the pesky weeds that grow in your backyard— do not have roots, leaves or stems, and instead of the intricate nutrient distribution network of tube like “plumbing” present in their land-based cousins, they absorb nutrients through their surface directly from the sea water. It is safe to say that calling these marine plants seaweed was spot on, after all they act like weeds and are found in the sea. Although they act like pesky weeds, seaweeds play a major role in keeping the balance within the ecosystem and may even come to play a vital role in restoring our planet. Their roles and uses depend on the species of seaweed as not all are created equal. In fact, there are around 12,000 species, each with its unique color, shape, and size. For this article we will be generalizing seaweed and mentioning where necessary specific weeds of the sea which have shown promising results. Here are six ways in which Kelp can Help our planet face the environmental & social challenges of today:
Seaweed is a fierce combatant against ocean acidification & pollution
Seaweed works around the clock to maintain our oceans healthy. From absorbing excess nutrients which can be dangerous for marine life, to trapping and transforming pollutants such as heavy metals into benign salts, they are constantly working to strike a balance in the ecosystem. Seaweed can also act as a bio-indicator of when waste from agriculture, aquaculture, industry, and households are let into the ocean, causing a nutrient imbalance which in turn leads to algae blooms. These blooms signify marine chemical damage. The seaweed’s ability to filter out toxins and pollutants may bring upon interesting developments with regards to wastewater treatment in the future.
Most importantly though, seaweed acts as the first line of defense against ocean acidification as it can sequester large amounts of carbon. Studies even suggesting that seaweed can absorb 20 times more carbon dioxide per acre than forests on land. It does this by capturing CO2, which is dissolved in the seawater and through photosynthesis of sunlight and nutrients, transforms it into O2 which is then released. The oxygen produced by marine photosynthesizers— both large seaweeds such as Kelp and microscopic seaweeds such as phytoplankton— account for more than half of the oxygen produced on our planet, making seaweed the talk of town lately.
Seaweed does not need soil or fresh water to grow
You may be wondering why this is so relevant when talking about the benefits of seaweed, it is however one of the main points that will be discussed today.
With our oceans making up 70% of the earth’s surface, 90% of soil on earth estimated to become degraded by 2050 and over 33% of that same soil already degraded today, fertile soil and fresh water are becoming prized commodities. Seaweed, with its ability to grow in the ocean devoid of soil or even fresh water brings with it a lot of advantages when it comes to guaranteeing food security, providing an economic alternative for communities, and mitigating the effects of soil erosion.
On the one hand, over 97% of all water on earth is stored in our oceans as saltwater, leaving the remaining fresh water stored in mountainous glaciers, lakes & rivers. This freshwater reserve is scarce, and in recent years it has even run out in some areas, causing some unprecedented droughts across our planet. On the other hand, mono-culture agriculture, deforestation, and climate change have degraded and eroded our planets soil to such an extent that we are witnessing lower crop yields—even with the increase in use of chemical fertilizers— loss of biodiversity and an ever-growing food crisis affecting our planet. These devastating effects are the reason, seaweed may play a major role in the mitigation through the practice of regenerative ocean farming—we will talk about this in another article— transformation of seaweed into nutrient rich organic fertilizer to be introduced into topsoil— restoring and re-mineralizing degrading soil— and finally as a food source for millions of people.
Seaweed forests are an oasis for coastal ecosystems
Seaweed forests are large underwater forests where seaweed converges, popularly referred to as Kelp forests. These lush and biodiverse forests play a vital role in keeping the balance as they act as underwater nurseries for fish, mammals & invertebrates, while also providing a safe haven to species escaping from predators or storms out in the open ocean. The Kelp also provides nourishment to many of those living among the blades; sea urchins feeding on the nutrient rich fronds, sea stars feeding on the sea urchins and larger predators feeding on those who call these forests home. Larger predators such as otters, seals and sea lions come to take advantage of the ample food available and the safety of the forest to raise their young. This balance is a perfect example of how nature can self-regulate and create productive ecosystems.
Seaweed has medicinal properties
Seaweed has been used as medicine to treat a wide range of ailments for centuries, from traditional Chinese remedies of hot water extracts for Cancer treatment, to the Romans using it to heal wounds, burns and rashes. It packs a nutrient punch with the likes of iron, iodine, calcium, omega, zinc, magnesium and pretty much all the Vitamin Bs into one. It really is the miracle algae, as it also shows strong anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Studies suggest that the bio availability in seaweed is so high, that it can also be extracted to apply in organic, reef friendly cosmetics to reduce acne, rosacea, and other sensitive problems. These are but a few of the current uses, stay tuned for more…
Seaweed as an alternative to fuel
Around 85% of seaweed is water, meaning that seaweed is a suitable candidate for biofuel via the method of anaerobic digestion to make biogas and through fermentation to produce ethanol. Some species of seaweed like the sugar kelp even have high carbohydrate and no lignin content which makes it perfect for bioethanol. This transformation holds promise because it can circumvent the land use and energetic constraints that current land-based biofuel production face which would mean land could be allocated towards food rather than fuel. Another advantage would be that this could potentially eat away at the market share currently held by dirty fossil fuels such as coal & oil.
Seaweed as an alternative to plastic
In a race for sustainable alternatives to plastic, seaweed has shown extraordinary potential to be transformed into a substitute biodegradable material. From edible cups to bioplastics, seaweed holds the most promise due to the current scale of production and its versatility. As the demand grows the price of producing such materials will go down, giving us an opportunity to rid society of the plastic plague and transition into more environmentally friendly alternatives. In March 2022, during the award ceremony of the Plastic Innovation Prize, five out of the eight finalists for a million-dollar sustainability prize, suggested seaweed alternatives with simple concepts.
Seaweed has shown great potential in all these fields and could prove to be the silver bullet that we have all been searching for. What we know for a fact is that things have to change, and we must take an alternative course so that we can avoid aggravating already sensitive issues. Saving our climate, saving our soil, saving our oceans, saving our freshwater reserves, and saving human lives are but a few of the dire topics that seaweed can address. As the plastic plague and fossil fuel usage rages on, seaweed may bring hope that substitute goods will be available to market soon. A substitute good which will bring down pollution in our skies, on our land and in our oceans. Generation Clean!