Become an Ocean Ambassador:

Solving for X: The Ocean Acidification Puzzle

09/09/2013 -- Paul Bunje

Paul Bunje is the Senior Director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE

The ocean is so vast—more than 70% of the earth’s surface and 98% of the habitable living space—it’s hard to imagine that anything could cause it much harm.

But, little by little, human activity has done just that. In addition to unsustainably extracting food and other resources from the ocean, to callously dumping pollutants, plastics and other hazardous materials into the ocean, there is now an even greater specter threatening the health of the ocean. The gradual addition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels that power our world is now resulting in a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification threatens all marine life and, thus, the health of the planet as a whole.

Man-made CO2 emissions are a well-known driver of climate change. However, it is less widely known that our oceans have been mitigating the impacts by absorbing about a quarter of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere.

But that oceanic CO2 absorption also comes with a price: the oceans are rapidly becoming more acidic. Small changes in pH levels have a huge impact on the chemistry of our seas, threatening shell-building organisms like mollusks and corals, as well as plankton and related species that comprise the foundation of the marine food chain. The interconnectedness of our planet dictates that if this marine food chain is disrupted, it will incite a chain reaction affecting the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants.

Yet despite these potentially life-altering effects, we know very little about the “where” and “when” of ocean acidification. It is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to study. And the limited tools that are currently available to scientists make it exceedingly difficult to understand, much less assess and build a response plan for ocean acidification.

That’s where XPRIZE comes in. We have just launched the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE to incentivize breakthroughs in ocean pH sensing technology, with two $1 million purses available—one that emphasizes the incredible accuracy scientists need to study ocean acidification and another that incentivizes affordability and ease-of-use for quick monitoring and response by a wider range of users. The breakthroughs we need to begin addressing ocean acidification are within our reach.

Much can be done to manage ocean acidification on a local level, from mitigating co-stressors such as pollutants, to reducing overfishing, to establishing Marine Protected Areas; but without the tools to study and monitor ocean acidification, we are flying blind.

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE is a first step in the global battle against ocean acidification. Because we can’t solve what we can’t measure, the development of breakthrough tools is critical. And at XPRIZE, we believe that the innovation necessary to solve this technical barrier could come from anywhere. That is why we are searching for teams of innovators from any industry, any background, and any part of the world to craft groundbreaking new methods for measuring the ocean’s pH with unprecedented accuracy and affordability.

Please visit oceanhealth.xprize.org to learn more or to sign up to compete for this prize.

Innovators wanted.