We humans have had deleterious effects on the world’s oceans. From industrial runoff to plastic waste, human activity is a major contributor to the collapse in the marine environment. These pollutants not only endanger life in the oceans but have direct impacts on human health as well.
Emerging green technologies and changing perspectives on waste and pollution are mitigating that impact, and one of the leading technologies is solar power. Here are three major ways solar power is helping the world’s oceans to recover.
Solar Power Reduces Air Pollution
Believe it or not, the pollution that goes into the atmosphere has a direct impact on the world’s oceans. This happens in a number of ways which have been very well documented.
As air pollution like carbon emissions, acid vapors, and other chemical pollutants disperse into the atmosphere, they have several impacts on the oceans. Increased carbon emissions have led to a rise in global temperatures, which is in and of itself a cause for concern. However, as carbon dioxide interacts with water, it produces carbonic acid.
The warmer the water, the stronger the reaction, which means the more acidification takes place. This has had a profound impact on marine wildlife and plant-life the world over. This is compounded by acid precipitation, which includes other harmful chemicals. The old adage holds true; what goes up must come down.
The acidification of the ocean has been directly linked to coral bleaching and the fish population collapse in many different biomes around the world. By reducing the amount of air pollution we pump up into the atmosphere, we reduce the burden on natural cycles which maintain the balance which supports life as we know it.
The natural carbon cycle absorbs about 40 billion tonnes of carbon per year, half of which is absorbed by the oceans.
By reducing our dependence on carbon-producing energy sources, we are allowing the planet’s natural processes to do what they do best. Solar energy produces no carbon dioxide, and has been used to replace natural gas in water heaters, coal in electricity generation, and is well on it’s way to integrating into other aspects of human activity.
Solar Power Reduces Ground Pollution
Energy from the sun reduces the need for resource extraction for coal, and other carbon deposits.
By replacing gas water boilers, coal-fired electrical plants, and centralizing power generation in municipalities and private homes, solar power has reduced the demand we put on our planet to provide fuel sources for our consumption. This has a two-fold effect.
As stated above, burning fewer fossil fuels means we are not producing as much air pollution. Further to this, by reducing the demand for mining fuel materials, solar power actually reduces the heavy metals and other toxins we produce as byproducts of those industries. The Athabasca Tar Sands for example, where Canadian bitumen is strip-mined, has produced vast lakes of toxic runoff.
These tailings are left to sit in open air, contaminating the land, and the water table around them. These toxins seep through the water table and flow into the Athabasca river basin, and into the Arctic Ocean beyond. If this level of environmental degradation is allowed in a country like Canada, imagine the impacts similar operations have in countries with weaker environmental protections. By reducing our reliance on fossil fuel production, we reduce the impacts of major extraction projects like this one.
Reducing global toxic waste
This isn’t the only way solar power reduces ground pollution.
By reducing our dependence on petrochemicals, and by presenting hazard-free alternatives to nuclear power and other “clean” energies which produce toxic waste, solar actually helps reduce the amount of toxic waste and fuel being stored, transported, and left to run into the water table.
The United Nations Environmental Program estimates roughly 400 million tonnes of toxic waste is produced annually across industries. That’s 400 million tonnes of waste which must be safely disposed of and is often not. Leaks of radioactive fuel, coal ash, oil sludge, and other toxic byproducts are often found in groundwater near their storage sites. Moreover, when these byproducts are transported, there is a big risk of an accident which puts those toxins in the water.
There are still heavy metals and dangerous chemicals used in the process of developing solar cell technology. However, unlike other energy sources, these heavy metals are held safely in the solar cells as part of their regular functioning. In that way, solar power offers us a way forward to using some of the heavy metal byproducts as a part of the solution to pollution.
Solar Power Reduces Water Pollution
When we think of water pollution, the first example that comes to mind for many is the Exxon Valdez spill of the early 1990s. While similar catastrophes have happened since the Exxon Valdez burned itself into our collective memories, in part because of the major attention it was given by the media.
While oil freighters running aground in the oceans are an easy way to understand water pollution, the realities are much broader reaching. From nuclear power to wastewater, humans have been treating our oceans like a garbage dump for many generations.
While solar power isn’t a magic bullet for stopping pollution in its tracks, it has reduced our reliance on some of the most destructive types of energy production.
Nuclear power water pollution
For example, nuclear power is a significant contributor to water pollution. Aside from leakage of radioactive waste which was brought to the public’s attention in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, nuclear power generation actually uses water as a coolant in its regular processes. This heated water is dumped back into river basins, lakes, and the ocean after use, but because it has been heated in the process of cooling the reactors, it can cause serious problems for the ecosystem around it.
Even other renewable energy sources produce water pollution. Hydroelectric dams cause methylmercury contamination, as well as disrupt the natural flow of water systems. Lubricants from the generators are often found downriver, and this chemical runoff impacts aquatic life. Solar power doesn’t interact with the water. Even the older iterations of solar, which used steam to turn turbines, produced only pure water vapor as exhaust.
What You Can Do
By turning our efforts to expanding solar power generation, we reduce the impacts our pollution has on the planet and allows the natural cycles to get back to putting things in balance.
Changing our homes to solar power, and pushing our local governments to do the same across the grid, will create the demand that accelerates the transition. Switching to solar isn’t the only step we can take, but it’s one of the biggest steps we can take to mitigating our own impacts on the climate. Most regions have solar power providers, and with newer and better technologies becoming available, now is the right time to make the switch.
The ocean can bounce back if we let it.