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Spurring pH Sensor Innovation To Monitor Ocean Health

Dr. Paul Bunje,
Senior Director,
Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE

The world’s oceans are quickly becoming more acidic. The rising level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is causing a fundamental change in the chemistry of our oceans—a change the planet has not seen for hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of years.

About a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, dissolving into carbonic acid and dramatically lowering the pH of the oceans. Over the last several years, scientists have identified substantial changes to oceanic carbonate chemistry as a result of this excess CO2. This matters because carbonate chemistry underlies the fundamental biological processes of all shelled marine organisms, from oysters and snails to the plankton at the base of the marine food chain.

Scientists have sounded the alarm for our oceans: All evidence points to changes in ocean chemistry that could fundamentally alter practically every marine ecosystem on Earth. The pH of the oceans has dropped by as much as a third compared to before the Industrial Revolution. This means ocean health is critically at risk. And, as the health of our oceans goes, so does the health of our planet.

Ocean acidification could have significant biological, ecological, biogeochemical and societal implications, changing the health of shellfish, fisheries, coral reefs and entire ecosystems. It could affect the global economy and the biodiversity of the planet.

Dealing with the threat of ocean acidification is more complex than it might first appear. Our ability to monitor the changes in marine environments is hampered by a disturbing lack of investment in ocean science. Our ability to monitor fundamental ocean characteristics, such as pH, is limited by a substantial lack of affordable, appropriate tools. Ocean acidification cannot be fully addressed because there is limited high-quality data on ocean pH levels, particularly in coastal areas. Most pH-sensing technologies are too costly, inaccurate and/or unstable to allow for sufficient deployment to produce needed data.

This lack of investment in ocean monitoring is not new—but ocean acidification has made it urgent for a sea change to occur. That is why the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE is being launched as a global competition for the development of accurate, robust and affordable pH sensors to profoundly improve our understanding of ocean acidification. The prize is designed to spur innovators to create breakthrough pH sensors that will enable scientists to measure and respond to ocean acidification, while stimulating investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself.

While there are indeed several pH sensors available to the marine market, few of them were designed for ocean environments or, much less, ocean acidification directly. As a result, there are limited options for producing the level of accuracy needed. Furthermore, most are expensive and difficult to use, limiting their adoption by a wider market. Affordable, advanced ocean pH sensors capable of robust measurement with the accuracy needed to monitor global change have not yet been developed. The prize-winning pH sensors would be the first of their kind, with the finalists being awarded in summer 2015.

Prizes have the power to catalyze markets through competition, as demonstrated in, for example, the commercial flight and private space industries. To truly create impact, XPRIZE will also invest in strategic activities and is engaging a broad swath of partners to help catalyze the ocean services industry to create new markets for pH sensors and ocean data. By emphasizing the power of big data, we can spur the growth of ocean services.

Everyone has a stake in healthy oceans, but our oceans are in trouble. The ones on the front lines—scientists, fisheries and marine managers—do not readily have all the diagnostic tools needed to understand and protect our oceans. But there are solutions out there, and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE will be a catalyst for bringing them about. To learn more, visit www.xprize.org.

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