By Silia Tsigka, GLOBUS Correspondent
The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed both our lives and the planet in a drastic way. The slowdown in most sectors of the global economy has allowed the planet to “breathe”, with a significant decrease in the emissions of nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as recorded by NASA satellites. Sea life is also experiencing an unprecedented recovery, after years of disruption by sea boats and tourists. Although a good sign, there is concern that when we finally “tame” the virus, the world’s largest economies will most probably return to habits of overproduction and, thus, over pollution, in an effort to reach their pre-virus productive outputs. The current slowdown, however, gives us precious time to reconsider the human impact on the planet and think of more ways to prevent ever greater pollution. A potential solution to consider came to my attention, months before the spread of the virus, without even noticing.
A couple of months ago, I was watching an episode of “Our planet” on Netflix, which introduced the concept of underwater seagrass meadows; steep reefs covered in grass, said to be able to absorb more carbon dioxide than many other aquatic ecosystems. I was captivated by the concept. Is this a natural solution to the climate crisis? I immediately started questioning whether the artificial creation of such meadows, within an ecosystem, would actually be a good idea, without disrupting the aquatic life of this very ecosystem.
To start, I though about the next best carbon sink. Large forests come to mind. However, history has shown that carbon uptake by forests can be both limited and risky, and easily reversed. The human-induced destruction of forests for agricultural and construction, as well as the epidemic of forest wildfires that has gripped the world of late, render forest areas under siege. However, vast underwater grassy areas have no substantial productive use for humans, and they certainly cannot be affected by fires. And, indeed, seagrass meadows absorb carbon dioxide 40 times faster and more effectively compared to a tropical rainforest!
But what is seagrass? The most common misconception is that seagrass is the same as algae or seaweed. This is not true. Seagrass is a flowering plant which anchors itself on the seabed rather than hard surfaces such as rocks. Just like terrestrial grass, the growth of sea grass is specific to seasons and its absorption of carbon dioxide takes place cyclically. Seagrass also provides both a habitat and a source of nutrition for thousands of marine organisms, hence helping to both cultivate biodiversity and secure food cycles.
There is no doubt that seagrass is important, but it has been at risk. Due to the fact that seagrass flourishes on steep reefs, surrounding the world’s continents, it is normal for it to be directly affected by human activity near the coasts. Since the 1980’s, it has been estimated that British shorelines lost more than 35% of their seagrass, with numbers suspected to be even higher than the measurements suggest. The temporary lapse in activity on British shores due to the spread of coronavirus may prove beneficial for the restoration of the meadows. However, can we therefore artificially plant seagrass to contribute to the restoration of the meadows?
Seagrass is considered an ecological engineer. This means that it is “an organism that significantly modifies its environment” (Jones et al., 1994) so as to accommodate it to its needs. Additionally, the ability of seagrass to grow in both hot and cold environments means that its artificial incorporation to an ecosystem cannot seriously disrupt the surrounding life. Efforts to plant seagrass have already been underway, with the Novagrass project, set on the coasts of Denmark, having found favorable and promising results.
Similar projects on extending research have also been supported by the global sustainability community. Project Seagrass is an organization dedicated to the conservation of seagrass meadows all over the world, with the aim to inform people about the meadows’ importance.