The idea that human activity could fundamentally change the chemistry of the oceans can seem preposterous. The oceans have a volume of around 1.5 billion cu km, and people have only visited a fraction of that space. No less an environmentalist than Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, thought the oceans so vast that human beings could never really change them.
If only that were true. Human beings have overfished the oceans, and pollution has ruined some of the great coral reefs that belt the tropics. Even more astounding is the fact that—through the burning of billions and billions of tons of carbon—humans have actually altered the chemistry of the oceans. The water has absorbed about 23% of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions, and much of that gas ends up as excess carbonic acid in seawater. As a result, the oceans are about 30% more acidic than they were before man-made carbon emissions began. Although seawater is still slightly alkaline, the increased acidification can have devastating consequences for coral reefs and for sealife. And if we continue pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the problem will keep getting worse.
Stopping ocean acidification will eventually require an end to carbon emissions, but in the meantime, scientists need better tools to understand just how the oceans are changing. That’s where the XPRIZE Foundation comes in. Best known for its work supporting privatized spaceflight, XPRIZE offers cash incentives that aim to galvanize innovators working to overcome major scientific challenges. This week the group announced the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, which aims to develop cheap and accurate ocean pH sensors that will allow scientists to track acidification in real time. “Acidification is a paramount threat to ocean health, and it’s one that often been ignored,” says Paul Bunje, the senior director of oceans, XPRIZE. “This is a challenge on a global scale, and it fits exactly what a prize should do.”
Right now there’s a paucity of data on the exact extent of ocean acidification, and how it might differ in various parts of the world. Existing pH sensors tend to be expensive or ineffective. That’s why XPRIZE will offer two $1 million prizes—one for a more accurate pH sensor that can operate in the deep water and one for a cheaper sensor that will work in the shallows. Teams or individuals anywhere around the world will be able to compete for one or both prizes. Four finalists will eventually be selected and will be given funding to test out their prototypes in real-world conditions, with the hope of eventually forming the backbone of a network of thousands of acidity sensors. The final prizes will be awarded some time in 2015. “The sensors need to be able to interact with the ocean environment, and you need to be able to show you can manufacture them as well,” says Bunje.
There’s a long history of using prizes to encourage scientific innovation in ocean science. In the early 18th century the British government, desperate to find a simple and practical method of determining an oceangoing ship’s longitude, established the Longitude Prize, available to anyone who could solve the problem. (No one actually ever won the full prize money, but smaller awards went to those who eventually refined the best navigation methods.) Ocean acidification sensors are the sort of scientific problem that no government or private company is likely to fund research for, especially in a tight fiscal environment. “A lot of ocean monitoring and the ocean industry more generally is only funded by governments right now,” says Bunje. “In the absence of that funding you need innovative solutions like prizes to spur research. You can’t only rely on government.”
Indeed, we may be seeing a return to the golden ages of private ocean exploration. Last year the filmmaker James Cameron became the first person to reach the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the oceans, since Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard back in 1960—and Cameron was using a submersible that he designed and built himself. The Catlin Seaview Survey, with funding chiefly from the insurer the Catlin Group, is charting the world’s endangered coral reefs. Across science, sensors are becoming cheaper, smaller and easier to use, which is leading to a vast increase in data—and hopefully, our ability to understand the planet we live on. Ocean science should be able to take advantage of that revolution—and if the winner can take home $2 million in prize money, all the better.