World Ocean Weekly

Ocean Systems and Saltwater Engineering

Seawater: a resource for fresh drinking water, for robust renewable energy, and perhaps so much more. This week we explore the potential for inventive ideas using ocean systems that have yet to be imagined.

The ocean is this enormous volume of saltwater, and, while it covers a majority of the Earth’s surface, we often ignore it in favor of our more immediate need for fresh water to survive. This distinction misinforms many things: for example, in the world of policy and science, the separation of salt and fresh results in the fact that at the international meetings of the World Water Forum, a gathering of thousands of government and scientific leaders, presenting hundreds of learned papers on the topic of water, the ocean is almost never mentioned as an integral part of the global water cycle. The line of jurisdiction and interest is drawn at that ephemeral place where water becomes brackish or fresh, the so-called salt line below which is of little concern to the assembled expertise. It seems to me that this is bad science that can only result in bad policy, but I am no expert in these things.

When we do think of salt water, we see it as a solution in which is suspended the marine food chain of species, large and small, that depend on that hospitable host fluid to thrive.

We sometimes, but only recently, have begun to think of salt water as a possible source for fresh water supply, as unconventional irrigation for certain crops, and as a medium from which to extract heat geo-thermally as an alternative energy supply. But surely, such a vast resource must have other serious uses that could be of even greater benefit for the future.

Let me describe a few. First, there is technology in development that will use the energy of the sun to turn salt water into fresh drinking water. Researchers at Rice University have engineered a portable device, using nano-technology that combines membrane filtration with light-harvesting photonics to convert hot salt water, passing over a porous surface, to cold and enhancing the distillation process using less and freely available energy for application off the grid in coastal areas where the salt water is readily available. While the devices under test are small and portable, it would be possible to upscale the technology to serve larger areas, rural water systems and wastewater treatment, humanitarian emergency response in remote sites, and use for offshore facilities surrounded by the ocean.

A second example is the use of saltwater for flushing of toilets and other effluent treatment, predictably questionable with regard to chlorine, chemical disinfectants, and other possible toxins that might adversely affect the marine habitat. But studies have suggested the opposite: that such a system might actually improve and protect marine ecosystems, in fact be less impactful that similar discharge of freshwater flushing only which upsets the normal conditions of localized habitats at treatment outlets. If such a technology could be applied safely, again at scale think of the pressure drop on consumption of freshwater supplies already limited.

A third example is the use of sea water for air-conditioning in urban areas and southern regions. The introduction of deep cold water from a lake or the ocean suggests a technology that takes advantage of available adjacent supply and is more economically and environmental friendly by conserving freshwater and substantially reducing energy costs. Studies by Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii suggest that such a system reduces the cost of conventional air-conditioning by 90%; decreases reliance generally of fossil fuels thereby alleviating air pollution, acid rain, and global warming; has short-term economic payback and long-term savings; is independent of fluctuating energy prices; is available for alternative utilities like sanitation; and again relieves demand on dwindling freshwater supplies. This technology is presently being used in six institutions with others in progress.

And finally a fourth example: the use of saltwater flow over a specially patterned surface to generate electrical voltage — essentially the movement of ions over a charged surface, the friction of positives over negatives resulting in an electrical potential difference, again potentially scaled by the speed of flow, the area of surface, and the efficiency of collecting and aggregating the charge as energy. (See Sciencing: Making Electricity from Salt Water)When I think of the areas of concrete in drainages, the faces of dams, and the frontage of sea walls and piers, I see an amazing secondary utility, that water generating the power to monitor those constructs, to run pumps, and to illuminate areas for safety, navigation, and other necessary economical use.

It’s all about invention, and I would submit that we have not even begun to explore ocean systems, to invent advantageous adaptation and response, and to derive heretofore unimagined advantage from the beneficent ocean.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Bridges Toward Sustainability

Do we have the courage and determination to cross over to the other side where a sustainable future awaits?


I’ve been thinking lately about bridges. Engineered structures: triumphs of ingenuity by which to connect things, one side to another, by stone and steel and wire, floating and suspended. Bridges are symbols: the Brooklyn Bridge in New York for example, used to distill and focus on the achievement not just of the designers but also the men, the builders, underwater in caissons laying the foundations, or spinning the wire into cables from which the connection is hung, raised to a metaphor for work, achievement, and aspiration, a reconciliation of communities and nations — the stuff of geopolitics and poetry.

It is no secret that we live in an era of disconnection. We oppose worldviews and beliefs — on climate and science. While the ocean seems much like a vast separation, it nonetheless connects through trade, immigration, and the passage of ideas that therefore serves to bridge. The convincing harmony, however, seems missing.

I have recently been presenting on opposite points of view — specifically the antipodes, the juxtaposition of the Arctic and Antarctic as the axis on which the Earth turns. North to south, land to water, settled to unsettled — and yet unified by the changing circumstance of climate, pollution, and disruption. Both are faced with deteriorating change: in the atmosphere, on land and the icy edges, and into the water column where still exists an abundance of life and resources mostly untouched by the anthropogenic impacts of what we call civilization. What is the bridge between them?

We are living on the span, out on the arc of history, of the record of our successes and failures, of our capacity to grow and thrive and survive, and of our ability to reach the other side without collapse — not just for some of us, but for all. If we are half-way out, how do we get to the other side?

Sailors knew the point of no return, when the way forward was imperative as the way backward was impossible. Explorers had no such decision point, in that they did not know what lay ahead in the unknown, uncharted water where only the prospect of knowledge and wealth provided the certainty to continue. Perhaps today our goals are different, as the world is parsed and known, albeit the lure of wealth remains — half-way out, but the future unknown and the sense of monsters in the margins, collapse, and apocalypse no longer the realm of science fiction. Is this a bridge to nowhere?

We are caught between despair and hope. In his conclusion to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the confrontation of truth to power and our choice now between application of mind and body to resistance and re-invention and the subversion of our freedoms to technology, autocracy, and social disorder. “For a few more decades,” he writes, “we still have a choice. If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.”

Let’s do it now. Standing on the bridge I feel this urgency to move forward, to broaden and amplify every effort to clear the way across by advocating and doing all required to protect and sustain the world ocean. It’s a huge obligation, and no one voice in print or on the radio can succeed without so many more. This month, World Ocean Observatory surpassed 800,000 followers on Facebook alone, part of a relentless campaign via social media and various forms of communication designed to build and sustain a global community of Citizens of the Ocean, the millions of us who live by and depend on the ocean-fresh water cycle and who see the other side as place for natural, political, financial, and social connection.

We must cross over the bridge to the future — with courage, determination, and the assurance of success. Make your choice. Step out. Cross over. The other side awaits.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

A Green Economy Needs a Blue Economy to Succeed

Seeking solutions on land without seeking solutions at sea is a failed strategy from the outset.


The politics of response to the impacts of changing climate is a powerful and perverse reality in the global conversation about how we invent the future. In the United States, the dialogue seems paralyzed, or worse, in that leadership seems determined to perpetuate dependence on coal, gas, and oil, the very process that has contributed so directly and deeply to the challenging circumstance we face on so many levels worldwide.

One response has been labeled the Green New Deal, an integrated, progressive strategy directed toward development of alternative energy systems, shifted government subsidy and investment in change, novel financial structures and instruments, and programs that change response through re-directed economic, educational, vocational, employment, and social behaviors. The process will be fraught. How will this affect the ocean?

A recent paper from The Ocean Foundation, authored by Mark J. Spaulding and Angel Braestrup, addresses an answer to that question — how the green new deal integrates with the best desired practices and changes for the ocean. How does the blue economy contribute necessarily to what can be reasonably be deemed a strategy for survival?

As the ocean absorbs so much of the causes of climate change and comprises some 71% of the earth’s surface and is a determinant for both atmospheric condition and the land-based water cycle, it is simply not possible to expect a green political agenda to succeed without an ocean awareness, strategy, and implementation — indeed, a blue economy.

Specifically, Spaulding and Braestrup argue the point as follows, “the blue economy vision and potential strategies should not be overlooked in developing the key elements of an overall more sustainable economy that opens new areas of opportunity while improving elements of our existing economy that support our overall vision of a healthy ocean, and thus healthy human communities.” They focus on three areas for such opportunity: shipping, energy production, and food security.

Shipping remains the most direct, efficient, and economical means to transport goods and raw materials given the globalization of supply and demand. Ships have been, until recently, serious contributors to climate change and threats to biodiversity by their use of dirty fuels and by the transfer of invasive species in ballast water and on hulls from one ecosystem to another. Through the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) new regulations regarding fuel quality, shipping lanes, safety at sea, operations in polar waters, and protections for port communities and crews have emerged. Private companies have conformed, in some cases innovated, to control environmental pollutants, ship-breaking procedures, and waste disposal at sea. Hybrid, electric, and sail-assisted power are on the drawing board for new ship construction, and new vessels for new services will be required to construct and service new technologies, like wind towers or geothermal facilities located in deep-ocean and coastal areas.

Energy production and mining are additional areas of concern. The operation of such enterprise has already proven a challenge to environmental protections. Pressure to explore offshore oil and gas production remains high. Similarly, early mining projects have proven unable to control what is essentially a process designed to destroy the ocean floor with serious implication for increased turbidity in the water column and habitat disruption. And yet, the economic potential for ocean energy production through wind, tide, current, solar, and geothermal technologies represent a powerful new force for job creation, production, and economic return from ocean engagement.

Finally, food security through the productive value of ocean supply must be sustained, protected from illegal fishing, unlimited harvest, destruction of coastal habitats and local fishers, and coastal development that destroys natural areas for species incubation and protection. The adoption of marine protected areas (MPAs), enforcement of fishing quotas and abuse, elimination of waste and by-catch, improved processing, traceable distribution, and coastwise restoration of mangrove and marshes all represent progressive economic opportunities based on sustainable development practice and conservation goals.

A green economy will not succeed without a blue economy. The interconnection has been proven over time. Seeking solutions on land without seeking solutions at sea is a failed strategy from the outset. As The Ocean Foundation paper concludes, “If we are to have a conversation about revitalizing and invigorating new areas of economic activity, and designing the framework of finance, policy, and enforcement to support such investment and growth, such a conversation must include the blue opportunities in the ocean…”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

It's a Good Time to Be a Citizen Scientist!

Citizen Science is a term used to describe non-specialist research and data collection carried out by private individuals, foundations and organizations utilizing the power of the internet to collaborate around the globe. There are many innovative projects and ways that anyone can collect data and conduct research. Interest in citizen science among curious students young and old not only builds awareness of key ocean issues but also promotes greater commitment by the general public to commit to creating positive change for the future of the ocean.

Citizen Science supports oceanographic research projects that help expand the understanding of the world’s oceans through technological advancements, intelligent observation and analysis, and open sharing of information.

The phenomenon of Citizen Science has two excellent outcomes: first, it provides information that cannot be collected by the traditional methods of field research, transcending the challenges of time and cost; and, second, it enlists non-scientists — students at many levels and curious individuals — in the exploration of a challenging question, its solution, and the expansion of public awareness and action from the project derived. Add to this innovation easy access via the Internet and social media to reach other similar citizens worldwide and you have a powerful tool for study and education.

This value is especially true for ocean science wherein the need for observation and data collection is distributed across a vast horizon of geographical, physical, and biological inquiry, none of which is easily or cheaply accessible. The cost to build, maintain, and operate research vessels is enormous and is mostly provided through government funding and some dedicated private philanthropy. New remote, technologically advanced observation systems are proliferating ocean wide; similar autonomous vehicles and technologies for access to the water column and sea floor are also in place. These amplify the collection of data for the most focused experiments, but are exclusive to very precise experiments and data collection and are not available to a large majority of scientists eager to investigate an almost infinite number of questions — a stunning measure of our ignorance about the ocean — how it is, how it works, and what is at risk due to change in critical environmental conditions.

Let me offer some examples:

Let’s say you love penguins, and want to study their behavior and count population numbers over a period of years in places you can never visit? To do so otherwise would be prohibitively time-consuming, physically demanding, and very expensive. Enter Penguin Watch, established by Oxford University in England, which enlists over 4000 volunteers to monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean, taken by remote cameras, to record size and structure of populations from year to year, and to observe molting cycles, predation, and novel behaviors otherwise unobserved. It’s penguins 24/7.

Penguin Watch is comprised of a community of more than 4,000 volunteers who monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean

Whale lover? Go to Happy Whale, created by the Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, Washington, and Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, where you can track whales all over the world by their unique tail markings as documented by algorithm analysis of photographs taken by individual photographers, whale watching companies, and eco-tourist ships in the most remote whale breeding habitats, migration paths, and feeding grounds. You can locate and follow, even name, a particular whale from place to place, year after year; you can learn, and share, everything you want to know about whales.

“Charlotte’s Hope” was tagged and observed by scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and filmed by BBC ONE for Blue Planet Live, in Charlotte Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula on March 11, 2019. Charlotte’s Hope was then adopted and named by W2O's own Peter Neill as an expression of wonder and optimism for the survival of whales, wild animals and wild places in our ocean world.

Head in the clouds? Go to the International Cloud Atlas, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a global reference system for observing and identifying clouds, including classifications, historical information, measurements, changing characteristics and other related meteorological phenomena such as halos, snow devils, and rainbows, and now publicly accessible in digital format, presenting thousands of examples of cloud formations in ten accepted categories. You can also join the Cloud Appreciation Society, created by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, where you will find cloud images and events, observation tools, information on clouds in art, music and poetry, a membership pin, a daily cloud fact emailed daily, and access for upload of your personal cloud- spotting efforts.

The Cloud Appreciation Society was launched in 2005 by Gavin Pretor-Pinney as a way to bring together people who love the sky. With members in 120 countries around the world, all are united in the belief that clouds are the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature. Become a member today.

Or, are you one of those mesmerized by phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like creatures that drift in the ocean and are the foundation of the food system for marine species, play a critical role in the carbon cycle by drawing CO2 from the atmosphere to the deep ocean, and contribute over half of the Earth’s oxygen, more than the trees and plants combined? Yes, too there is a place for you: Fjord Phyto, a polar citizen science initiatives sponsored by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Here you can train to take water samples in Arctic and Antarctic fjords and submit them for comparative study of these key, ubiquitous, almost invisible exemplars of intense biodiversity.

Follow turtles? Count birds? Pick your interest. For the citizen scientist, there has never been a better time nor more prolific means to be curious about our ocean world.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Feeding Up and Down the Food Chain

Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecological community. In the aquatic food web, humans feed down the food chain, consuming lesser and lesser ocean predators and marine species without a consciousness of the consequences of our actions at the microscopic level. How do we persuade citizens to adopt a different perspective? How do we articulate an optimistic and realistic way of looking at who we are in relation to all the elements of the natural world? This week we look at the aquatic food chain from the bottom up, and ascribe value to the base elements and fundamentals of ocean life so that all life may thrive and provide and endure.

Phytoplankton (and algae), at the lowest trophic level, form the foundation of the aquatic food web. Credit: NOAA |

I once wrote a story about a wise man to whom people came to solve all the problems of the world. He sat on the beach, looked out to the ocean, and saw clearly the way forward for the benefit of everyone. One day, however, all was lost. His view became clouded, vision dimmed, perspective dissolved, until he found himself without wisdom for anyone. What to do? A child came along and asked him what was wrong. “I can’t see, I don’t know,” the wise man responded.” I despair.” The child instructed the man to stand up, turn around, and sit down again — one full, clear circle of movement by which all past assumptions were disrupted and upset, all old visions discarded and fresh ones evolved, to settle down into a new perspective, albeit from the same sandy place, one simple revolution by which the wise man’s ocean view was filled with fresh ideas, re-arrangements, and new counsels for the future.

On a recent lecture tour, I found myself challenged again and again by my inability to penetrate fixed thoughts and opinions about our ocean world, by my failure to find the right vocabulary by which to answer questions, to ignite attention, to attack a convention, to introduce a different way of thinking or response to frustrating circumstance, to persuade listeners to adopt a different perspective. At one point we were talking about the marine food chain and the dynamics of the ocean water column. We spoke of “feeding down the food chain,” the process by which we, the dominant human species, consumes marine species downward, harvesting without limit lesser predators who in turn are harvesting without limit lesser predators still until we reach the microscopic world of diatoms and other phytoplankton and the myriad other creatures that inhabit the bottom where the insidious consequences of our actions now reach.

At one point in that conversation, it occurred to me that there was a very different way of describing this phenomenon; it was as if an invisible small child had picked me up and turned me round. What if we look at this chain from the other end? What if we stop framing the argument by arranging the science to focus first on us, and on our fear of consequence as this structure of predation descends toward depletion, endangerment, indeed extinction of the species we so desperately need to survive? What if we started from the opposite point of view: from the bottom, from the base elements and fundamental value of ocean life, and described the process as an upward spiral of production, each piece adding value to the piece above, as an elegant, self-affirming cycle of increase, not decrease, of abundance not loss?

What would such a system look like? It would look exactly the same actually, but for the fundamental premise of its being, its conservation, its proliferation shifted from unlimited, indiscriminate harvest to manageable, sustainable growth. What if our policies and actions were re-focused on the total health of the water column as a place where every creature, providing protein up the ladder would be protected and nurtured and available for the next? If we could accept such a perspective, we would have a rationale for maintenance of water quality, the water cycle from mountain-top to coast to abyssal plain, at the highest level of purity and availability for every species from the bottom up to thrive and provide and endure. No more dumping of acid, pollutants, and waste, no more disruptions of the ocean floor by any form of extraction, no more plastic for every species to ingest through its invasion of this essential food chain into our bodies and health. By so doing, could not every level of our being on earth, energized by the sun, supported by an adequate, sustaining supply of water and food, be freed from the debilitating conditions we know now — starvation, drought, poverty, disease, insecurity, conflict — could not it all be reduced, even obliterated, and the world we live in improved by associated social outcomes — community, justice, and peace?

By such a radical revolution, could we address and deny despair? Could we articulate an optimistic, and realistic, way of looking at who we are in relation to all elements of the natural world? Could we express such change by new applications of science and technology? By fresh conversations about social and financial issues? By innovative political arrangements and regulatory agreements? By renewed action to reverse our separations and to bring us together?

We are like the wise man on the beach who lost faith in what he knew. But a child stood him up and turned him around with a simple revolution from an exhausted worldview to a new idea.

Why don’t we give it a try?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.