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The Problem: Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

The Solution: Do you know about The Azolla event? Fifty million years ago, one plant, all by itself, in the Arctic Ocean, right near the North Pole, pulled 3,000 parts per million CO2 out of the atmosphere, single-handedly, in 800,000 years.  

This is what The Climate Foundation looks for in nature–when nature does something without our interference at all, that solves our problem. This is what we have to listen to. Azolla is an amazing plant. 

It’s this tiny little plant that has a symbiosis between the plant itself and a cyanobacterium that lives in the plant, it produces omega-3’s and fixes nitrogen.This plant is an aquatic fern. It grows ten centimeters thick on the top of fresh water. So how did it survive in the Arctic Ocean? Two reasons. One, the Arctic Ocean was closed, not open, with very limited circulation. Secondly, ambient temperatures were 20 to

30 degrees Celsius. And thirdly, phosphate was pouring out of the rivers into the Arctic Ocean. So, what happened? Near the river mouths, azolla was growing, taking all the phosphate it could, and doubling its mass in less than three days.

Every summer, azolla covered large parts of the Arctic Ocean. How can that be, since Azolla is a fresh-water fern and the Arctic Ocean is salty. But every summer the azolla grows out from the fresh river mouths out over the Arctic Ocean and, as it does so, it keeps the waves down, it keeps mixing down, and the fresh water creates a lens on the surface, propagates through the azolla, and creates more fresh water on the surface. So it keeps growing and growing. With a doubling time of 3 days–this is why we have to harness biology to solve the climate problem. Biology has been fixing carbon for three billion years. We have to learn from the past and learn from nature, to understand what natural systems we can leverage to sustainably sequester gigatons of carbon. 

It is the Climate Foundation's ambition to sequester or cause to be sequestered, a gigaton of carbon in this lifetime, And all of us should have this ambition. It is doable. It is doable to create successful, sustainable businesses that can actually do this, and it’s the key to sustaining the planet that we live on.

So, can we mimic azolla? Can we find an opportunity to do this? What happened with the azolla? Every summer in Arctic Ocean, a million square kilometers of azolla would grow, and every fall and winter, a million square kilometers of azolla would die and sink to the bottom. And what’s fascinating about this is that the Arctic Ocean, we know, was anoxic in the middle and deep. And so, that azolla would sink and go into the anoxic depths with no oxygen, where it would be turned into the Alaska oil that we find today. And that was 50 million years ago.

Now, that simple system in less than 800,000 years pulled down 3,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide. We would be happy to do one-thirtieth of that. That would take us back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. So it’s an incredible opportunity. And when we look at places like the Santa Barbara Channel, the Black Sea, and other places that are already anoxic at the bottom, in the middle, and we think, “How can we harness something like azolla to ensure food security, avert food riots and water wars, and yet at the same time sequester this scale of carbon?” These are the kind of natural positive outliers that we look to, to actually do this.  

As a result of learning about the wonderful little plant, the Climate Foundation has begun growing Azolla in the warm geothermal waters of Nevada.     

For more information about The Azolla Event, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azolla_event

Photos by Ingrid Taylar and Ramashng