People on the beach in China walk along a sealine of green algae that has washed up on the shore in front of the waves.

Ecology: The Potential for Algae to Fight Climate Change and Heal Oceans

Algae have the potential to fight climate change by deacidifying the oceans. Further, it could assist in sending carbon to the ocean floor. It also aids in absorbing 200 million tonnes of C02 each year globally. The ocean can cultivate many ‘seaweed islands’ to eliminate some of the negative consequences of climate change.

 Seawood farming is beneficial in producing resources for food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Not only that, but the by-products can then be used as a packaging alternative to plastic. Therefore, algae will be as crucial to our survival in the future as it has been in the past. 

Algae is a mysterious category of plant that may make you think of pond scum or giant kelp. However, different types of algae are a large and diverse group of photosynthetic organisms. While seaweed is the most prominent of this aquatic group, there are also millions of different  microalgaelike Charophyta.

In addition, algae produce more than 71% of the earth’s oxygen. However, some scientists predict this number may be even higher and it may produce up to 87% of the world’s oxygen. Environmental scientists believe that algae’s powerful qualities may mean it plays a crucial role in combating climate change.

Algae Cultivation in the Past

A photo of a kelp forest underneath the water.

Algae has boundless potential for good when it comes to our health and environment. However, this is not a recent realization. The Indigenous people of Tasmania in Australia used and cultivated kelp as far back as 45 000 years. They would dry the kelp till it developed a rubbery texture and fashion it into something that looked like a purse. They would then use this to carry water. The Indigenous people of Australia are some of the first seaweed farmers and innovators in history.

In addition, algae are some of the oldest known plants to be cultivated and recorded in early botany in China. It was also a source of food and medicine in China as far back as 3000 BCE. The Japanese cultivated seaweed around 1670, and commercial farming began in the 1950s. 

Green algae could be a billion years old and an ancestor to all other plants on earth. Moreover, there is strong fossil evidence to suggest that red algae indeed existed a billion years ago. Life on earth is dependent on plants that can photosynthesize for food. However, until recent years there was no evidence of plants evolving before 450 million years ago. So, while some biologists still believe that plant life began in rivers, some fossil records suggest algae is where life began.

Algae is Good for the Earth and for You

A man sits in shallow water at the beach and covers himself head to toe with green algae.

Algae has impressive health benefits as well as an essential role in the environment. Some common types of algae for health are spirulina and chlorella. You may see people add these to a glass of water to make a healthy green-looking liquid. Not only that, but algae has Omega-fatty acids, amino acids, protein, and vitamins. Moreover, they are suitable for improving your gut health, which scientists now also know is crucial for our wellbeing. In fact, for as long as humans have farmed algae, it has been an essential source of food and medicine in many different cultures. 

Sea lettuce, of the Ulva algae family, grows along many of the coastlines of the world and has been a source of food for thousands of years. The main properties of sea lettuces are their richness in polysaccharides, protein and amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. Therefore, their nutritional value makes them valuable food supplements.

What is Algae Exactly? 

An image of a nori seaweed farm, with green algae hanging from nets just above sea water.

The singular alga is the Latin word for ‘seaweed’ and retains that meaning in English. The etymology is uncertain. Although some think it has origins in the Latin algēre, ‘be cold,’ there is no reason to confuse seaweed with cold temperatures. A more likely origin is the word alliga, ‘binding, entwining.’

The Ancient Greek word for ‘seaweed’ was phŷkos which could mean seaweed (probably red algae) or a red dye derived from it. The Latinization, fūcus, meant the cosmetic rouge made from this plant. Another possible origin has long been some word related to the Biblical pūk, ‘paint’, a cosmetic eye-shadow used by the ancient Egyptians and other inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean.

It could be any color: black, red, green (volvox), or blue algae. The blue-green alga is a specific type of algae scientifically known as cyanobacteria. They thrive in combined salt and fresh water and are single-celled organisms that produce their food through sunlight. 

While the etymology is unclear, what scientists do know is that algae were toxic to many early lifeforms on earth. Algae may have been the very first toxic waste crisis in the history of the planet because of producing oxygen.

The Single-Celled Organism

Bioluminescent algae in the shallow water of a beach at night shining blue.

There are these 400,000 known varieties of algae, which make it very much its own unique fauna. However, it primarily thrives in freshwater environments. As they oxygenate the water, they are incredibly important to aquatic life and play an important role in the ecosystem.

Algae is a natural water filter. For this reason, it is used in many wastewater treatment facilities, which will reduce the need to use harsh chemicals. In addition, they are sometimes used in power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

While we do not usually think about algae, there are more forms of micro-alga in the earth’s ocean than there are stars in the universe. So, if you have ever accidentally swallowed seawater when swimming at the beach, you have unknowingly consumed thousands of microalgae.

In some areas of the Indian ocean, the sea surface lights up at night. It is so bright that you will not need any electrical light to see or even read. Sometimes the glowing surface has a diameter of more than 1.5 km.

This is a bioluminescence glow that is actually the Dino-flagellata algae and is incredibly beautiful to see. Some places where you can see bioluminescent algae are Jervis Bay in Australia, San Diego, Goa, and the Matsu Islands. Should you ever find yourself in any of these places, be sure to seek out the best spots to see these amazing bioluminescent algae.

The Environmental Impact

An image of green microalgae under a microscope.

This unique aquatic lifeform has some pretty fantastic potential to save the climate and produce environmentally friendly products.

For example, kelp will absorb CO2 by using photosynthesis and growing biomass. Co2, or carbon dioxide, is an acidic gas that is harmless in small amounts. However, in high amounts, it can be toxic to the environment. For example, increased carbon dioxide levels can affect your sleep and cognitive function. Likewise, high doses are harmful to the natural world and impact changes in the environment.

Carbon dioxide is off-put by the photosynthesis of plants. With the expansion of cities and the over-cultivation of the environment, carbon dioxide is increasing. As c02 emissions build up in high amounts, mainly from burning fossil fuels, it contributes to increasing the earth’s temperature. This temperature increase has a domino effect on countless things in the environment—for example, the slow melting of the polar ice caps and increasing sea levels.

The term climate change or climate crisis is the result of the heating of the earth. It will create severe weather events. Moreover, it will severely impact communities that live by the ocean as water levels rise. This will contribute to the displacement of both humans and animals in the areas that will be most impacted.

Algae Fights Climate Change

A young boy floats in the water completely surrounded by green algae.

While this all sounds very alarming and is very serious, scientists warn that we can offset this if we act. Algae may play a crucial role in restoring the earth’s temperature and absorbing large amounts of CO2. 

As mentioned earlier, seaweeds like kelp absorb CO2. Once it has absorbed it, the seaweed will sink to very deep parts of the ocean floor and remain locked in its tissues. Globally, seaweed will absorb nearly 200 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, making it a powerhouse tool for the climate. Cultivating systems such as these can see carbon absorption 50 times greater than can be achieved with forests. 

Moreover, cultivating seaweed is inexpensive and relatively easy. Kelps will grow very quickly – sometimes up to 2 feet (61cm) per day. They also do not require fertilizers or any additional resources for them to grow and thrive. There is bountiful space in the ocean for seaweed and kelp farming, unlike on land resources. 48 million sq km of the ocean (or 15.5 million sq miles) are suitable for algae cultivation. 

In addition, kelp raises PH levels in the ocean, which is essential for marine life like shellfish, muscles, and oysters. If these creatures are in acidic waters, it can make their shells brittle and hard. The environment works in a complex complementary system. Caring and cultivating algae and kelp also promotes a healthy aquatic environment. 

Climate change also impacts the existence of kelp, as rising temperatures increase the acidity in the water and make it difficult to grow. 

Further Reasons Algae is the Way Forward

A photo of green algae on some rocks at low tide during sunset.

Of course, forests and the Amazon are crucial to offsetting CO2 and keeping our environment healthy. The Amazon is sometimes called the ‘lungs of the earth’ and has offset 1.7 billion metric tonnes of CO2 in 20 years.

There is enough space in the world’s parks, forests, and free land to plant 1.2 trillion more trees. While this would have incredible benefits for the environment and help climate change, we may not have time to wait.
It could potentially take hundreds of years for these forests to reach maturity and offset carbon emissions. As a result, we may have missed our window by relying on plant life to assist with CO2 emissions, as we should have planted them decades ago.

Algae, on the other hand, is a much faster solution. Moreover, as it is much quicker, it is more likely also to produce sustainable products too. Trees and algae absorb carbon dioxide naturally. Trees ‘consume’ it as part of their photosynthesis process by ‘absorbing’ carbon into their trunks and roots and releasing oxygen back into the air.

Algae replicate the same process but ‘absorb’ the carbon in the form of more algae. Algae can consume more carbon dioxide than trees because they can cover more surface area, grow faster, and be more easily controlled by bioreactors, given their relative size.

In addition, bioreactors can contain large amounts of algae and optimize their growth  cycle in a way that is easier than trees. Additionally, it takes the overgrowth of algae, dehydrates it, and ultimately puts it to use as fuel or biomass.

Coral Reefs

A colourful coral reef in the ocean.

Coral reefs also rely on algae. Corals are actually living animals and algae will live inside and on them. The algae will create sugars through photosynthesis that are a source of energy for coral reefs. Called zooxanthellae, these algae live symbiotically with the coral.

In addition to proving an energy source, they also propagate many of the beautiful colors that coral has. If a coral reef is stressed or suffering, it will expel the algal cells and the coral will eventually become a white or stone gray color. Many coral reefs in the world, including Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, are experiencing this phenomenon called coral bleaching.

Coral reefs also play an important part in the environment, as they stop the corrosion of ocean floors. This is especially important in storms or harsh weather. Moreover, coral reefs support a vast array of marine animals. The coral reef biodiversity is so immense, scientists believe that there may be millions of undiscovered species within them. If coral reef health is not cared for, we may never identify many new species.

Coral reefs also contain a wealth of medicine. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases.

Significance to Ecology

An image of a mermaid plant growing out of the ground under water.

Algae is an undervalued part of the ecosystem that requires more attention. It has the capacity to promote ocean health, see marine life thrive, balance ocean temperatures, and absorb CO2. The multiple ways algae are good for the environment will also see it combat climate change, if we act now.

The ocean holds a wealth of potential for scientific discovery, medicine, and nutrition for both humans and animals. Moreover, algae such as seaweed have the potential to make sustainable products instead of plastic.

Scientists are working to promote research and trials that will assess how we can quickly cultivate algae and seaweed to reduce CO2 emissions. Doing so could be the key to combating rising sea temperatures and preserving unique environments.

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