Dr. Brian von Herzen is the founder and executive director of the Climate Foundation, and a champion of marine permaculture – a process that the Climate Foundation is bringing to scale to reduce carbon, improve food security and regenerate marine ecosystems. In this episode, Hilary Langer and Brian von Herzen discuss the importance of restoring balance to the ocean, how marine permaculture engages populations that depend on the ocean for food, and how his team plans to expand marine permaculture in Asia and around the world.
Dr. Brian von Herzen is the founder and executive director of the Climate Foundation, and a champion of marine permaculture – a process that the Climate Foundation is bringing to scale to reduce carbon, improve food security and regenerate marine ecosystems.
In this episode, Hilary Langer and Brian von Herzen discuss the importance of restoring balance to the ocean, how marine permaculture engages populations that depend on the ocean for food, and how his team plans to expand marine permaculture in Asia and around the world.
Brian von Herzen, PhD LinkedIn Profile
Greenwave Regenerative Ocean Farming on Climate Positive
Episode Recorded: January 10, 2023
Email your feedback to Chad, Gil, and Hilary at email@example.com or tweet them to @ClimatePosiPod.
Chad Reed: I'm Chad Reed.
Hillary Langer: I'm Hillary Langer.
Gil Jenkins: I'm Gil Jenkins.
Chad: This is Climate Positive.
Dr. Brian von Herzen: This is about really having the degree of freedom that we’ll need to ensure the food security, not only for humanity, but for the 8 million species who cannot vote. And that’s so essential for sustaining life in the sea and sustaining life in our critical ecosystems.
Hilary: My guest today is Dr. Brian von Herzen. He’s the founder and executive director of the Climate Foundation, and he’s a champion of marine permaculture – a process that the Climate Foundation is bringing to scale to reduce carbon, improve food security and regenerate marine ecosystems.
Hilary: Dr. von Herzen, thanks for joining us today from Australia.
Brian: Oh, thank you, Hilary. It's a pleasure being here.
Hilary: Before we dig into your work, I want to touch on your motivation for working on climate solutions. You initially got a degree in physics from Princeton, went on to get a PhD in computer science and planetary sciences from the California Institute of Technology. You developed technologies that were used by NASA, but you've shifted now so that most of your work focuses on the ocean, what prompted you to make this change?
Brian: We created the Climate Foundation concept nearly 20 years ago, and it was actually inspired from a science fiction writer from New York City, Isaac Asimov. He wrote a classic trilogy, half a century ago, called the Foundation Trilogy, and it's about a galactic civilization that was facing collapse. Through the science of psychohistory and the science fiction, they predicted that no matter what we do, we're going to be dealing with a major collapse, and how does civilization survive a collapse. That was the purpose of the first and second foundations.
Through that trilogy, the protagonists manage to get help guide civilization through an imminent collapse and to come out from that experience in a positive way. That was the inspiration for the Climate Foundation. That is to actually understand how do we avoid a collapse of our civilization because of the giant pit crater of greenhouse gases that we're creating. I've got to tell you, we've got to move beyond net zero because this is a critical factor.
I calculated just today that we've been looking at all the greenhouse gases we've emitted in the last 200 years, that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would fill a pit crater, 200 kilometers across, and 100 kilometers deep. That's how big the pit crater is. We've created, we've dug ourselves a hole, and when we get to net zero, we will have stopped digging, but we will be at the bottom of the hole.
The challenge and the opportunity is to go beyond net zero, stop digging, definitely, get to net zero sooner rather than later. Then, how do we actually crawl out of the pit crater and start filling in the hole again, and that's getting beyond net zero and getting back to a healthy climate? That's why we're really looking at drawdown solutions that remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the season soils from whence it came.
Hilary: In 2008, as part of the Climate Foundation, you demonstrated how coral bleaching can be reversed through this method of deep-water marine permaculture, what does that actually look like in practice?
Brian: Well, today, across the Pacific Ocean, and other oceans, the water is too warm, and it results in what's called thermally induced photobleaching. It just means the waters too hot for the corals, and every summer, they're living within one degree of mortality. Unless we can find a way to restore natural upwelling, and keep those corals cool enough, that ecosystem is in the process of collapsing, we've lost an estimated half of all corals on the planet so far.
Now, there's some very interesting silver linings, and that is if you look at the coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, over the past decade, the reef crest and the inner reef had massive bleaching with losses of more than 50% of all the coral cover. If you go on the outer reef, on the outer edge, most of the corals survived some of the worst bleaching events. We asked ourselves why is that happening. Well, it turns out there are internal waves that are deep pool water that actually break on the outer edges of the reef and inundate periodically the reef with deep cool water.
Normally, you'd think, well, there's more nutrients in that deep water, maybe we think it would be hurting the corals, but no, the cooler water actually provides a relief for the corals. Even if it's just for an hour or two, it's enough for the corals to regain some energy and actually survive the difficult high temperatures. We tried that on a small scale in American Samoa, we thought it would take three months for those corals to come back to color, but they came back to color in less than 24 hours. That's how profound it was.
It was level 5, and then we moved the treatment to different sites, so after just 24 hours of treatment, they retain color for more than two weeks. It's just an amazing biological response. We'd like to say give nature half a chance, and she'll rebound exponentially. This is an example of that. Just provide a little bit of cooling for the reef, and the way this fits in is that by restoring natural upwelling, growing macro algae, and drawing down some nutrients, the water downstream from that irrigation can actually irrigate the corals and in the summer months actually prevent those corals from bleaching or reverse bleaching if it started.
Hilary: How do you bring the cooler water up towards the surface?
Brian: There are two ways of doing deep water irrigation. The first, which we started more than a dozen years ago, was to use marine solar power to restore natural upwelling and actually pump it up to the surface, irrigate a seaweed forest. That actually provides enough nutrients for those seaweeds to thrive again, as demonstrated by several pilots that we've done in the western Pacific Ocean.
The second way, which has been pioneered by the University of Southern California and other groups, is to do what we call deep cycling. That is, the seaweed acts like a sponge that absorbs sunlight during the day. We can actually lower the platform down below the thermocline, down below the nutrient line more than 100 meters deep. At night, it soaks up all the nutrients, nitrate and phosphate, and micronutrients that are below the thermocline and below the nitric line 10,001. You can get 10,000 times the concentration of nitrate and phosphate inside the seaweeds as existed out in the seawater.
Then, at sunrise, we bring the platform back up to the surface, and it soaks up sunlight and carbon dioxide in the top meter of the sea and actually draws down carbon dioxide with a net result that we get replete growth, and replete sunlight. It's a great way to effectively upwell the nutrients and provide a great sustainable solution that provides food security for billions of people who depend on the ocean, regenerates fish habitat and life in the ocean, and ultimately, lets us measure the carbon export, the quarter of the seaweed that falls off the platforms during growth sinks 1000 meters a day and remains in the abyssal ocean for centuries before returning.
Hilary: With the Climate Foundation, you've spearheaded this research into marine permaculture with an emphasis on kelp, because it's such an important factor in restoring the carbon balance. What does that system look like in practice? Can you walk us through what we would see if we were out, maybe diving to view it?
Brian: Yes, it's a bit like-- I was working with Jerry O'Neal on space colonization in the 1970s at Princeton University. It feels like you're 1000 feet deep water, you're at the surface, it's clear blue seas, and you have this almost like a space station, a living space station of life where you have seaweed growing, you can have kelp forest growing, fish are loving the habitat, hanging out. The forage fish, the sardines, the anchovies, and even the herring are living in the seaweed forest because its habitat.
[unintelligible 00:07:46], Blue Water kelp, she found her parents in the kelp. I think that was great statement to how important it is for fish. Ultimately, it's about regenerating that fish habitat that can actually regenerate fisheries. We have sardine fishermen fishing around our platform day and night because there's so many sardines around the platform. That, ultimately, provides essential habitat. There's the notion of permaculture is that you're actually building a forest and sustainably harvesting from that forest in a way that keeps the forest alive, and also enables a sustainable yield for coastal communities et cetera.
That means we mow the lawn and harvest some seaweed, we harvest some of the fish, but you can't fish inside the kelp forests because that would actually be a problem for nets and fishing lines. Around the edges, that's where the fish spill over, and it can be harvested. We've done this at 100 square meter scale, which was a great pilot. Just last year, we've launched our first quarter acre platform, which is the stepping stone towards an economically sustainable hectare, that will deploy later this year.
Hilary: That's great. I understand that you have three goals with the foundation, versus food security, ecosystem, survival, and then carbon balance. Across all of these goals, you emphasize the business applications and how to make this economically sustainable. How do you see the more subsistence farmers and the people who locally depend on the ocean interacting with these installations as they go to scale?
Brian: That's a great question, Hilary. In the Philippines, one of the reasons we've chosen the Philippines to launch our flagship marine permaculture platforms is that there are a quarter million seaweed farmers on the frontlines of climate disruptions today in the Philippines. They're facing not only marine heat waves, and the nutrient levels being too low, but they get more than 20 named hurricanes every year. 20 hurricanes-- We just went through one 12 months ago. I'll tell you, it wiped out 99% Of all of the seaweed farms completely.
The coastal devastation was amazing with more than 15 feet of storm surge, so many coastal communities were wiped out. However, our platform offshore, just five meters below the surface, survived 18-foot waves and 120-knot winds. Not only the platform was intact, but most of the seaweed was still on it. The way to escape a hurricane is to go down and go deeper. By going deeper, we're able to grow seaweed the very next day after the hurricane, and six months later, provide a quarter ton of seedlings to our neighboring communities to enable them to restart their farms. This is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel that says there's hope.
Because we've had so many colleagues, seaweed professionals, leave the Philippines because it's so, it was so impossible to deal with all the hurricanes. With this approach, we can build climate resilience into everything we do, into our seaweed growing and ultimately, into the agricultural products that come from the seaweed farm and ultimately, enable resilient to heat waves, resilience to droughts, and ultimately, climate resilient for the rice farmers that can use these agricultural amendments to reduce their dependence on nitrate fertilizer and actually improve the yield of their crops during climate disrupted times.
Hilary: How were you received locally when you started your work in the Philippines?
Brian: Oh, it's been amazingly positive. The level of support from local government has been enormous. Every seaweed farmer has a right to farm, a hectare of seaweed, and it's one hectare at a time that we're going to solve this problem with coastal communities that are seaweed communities. Today, they're collapsing with this innovation.
It's like we've invented solar irrigation for seaweed cultivation for the first time. Imagine growing rice without irrigation. That's what people are effectively doing now with the challenges that we're seeing with the climate disruption. The challenge and the opportunity is to move these communities a step at a time from the current collapse to with irrigation, they can survive and ultimately, thrive.
It's about developing higher value seaweed products as well as providing those deep water irrigation that can regenerate seaweed farming across Asia initially, but then across subtropical and even temperate areas in the future. I know, for example, California has lost 95% of its neuro system kelp forest in Northern California, and this is an approach that can ultimately address the root cause of those losses and help to regenerate those kelp forest ecosystem services offshore and regenerate the fish habitat that so many of our marine mammals and seabirds, as well as fish, depend on.
Gil: Climate Positive is produced by Hannon Armstrong, a leading investor in climate solutions for over 30 years. To learn more about our climate positive journey, please visit HannonArmstrong.com.
Hilary: As you grow, do you envision that the climate foundation will have their installations? You'll be working with local partners to make sure that if there is a big natural disaster, you'll be able to reseed the smaller farms, and then will you have this deep water coming into both your farms and then the local farms?
Brian: I think the intent is ultimately once we demonstrate the value chains for food, for feed supplements, and for fertilizer products, we can then move towards supplying all of the seaweed industry with a deep water irrigation that they're going to need to survive. That, by providing very cost-effective approaches to this deep water irrigation, we can enable not only shoreline areas nearshore, but the US and every country has 300 kilometers of exclusive economic zone, and most of it is empty ocean.
Any water that's more than 100 meters deep is accessible with this approach. This is about really having it, the degree of freedom that we'll need to ensure the food security not only for humanity but for the 8 million species who cannot vote. That's so essential for sustaining life in the sea and sustaining life in our critical ecosystems.
Hilary: Wonderful. In validation of all of your successes in the Philippines, you recently won the $1,000,000 XPRIZE for carbon removal. You were selected out of pool of over 1000 very strong applicants. What distinguished your group?
Brian: Well, this approach that we're using with marine permaculture is the only nature-based ocean solution that also provides sustainable carbon export because we can document the quarter of seaweed that falls off these platforms during growth. Leaves falling from a tree, they drop 100 meters a day to the a vessel's sea floor where it takes centuries before that digested carbon comes back up to the atmosphere along with the water.
That sequestration time of centuries represents a true blue carbon sink. The United Nations provides carbon credits for any operation or any approach that can reliably sequester carbon for more than a century. It's a great example of how we can address our need to rebalance and effectively fill in some of the hole that we've created for ourselves over the past two centuries.
Hilary: You're focused on Asia now, what are some of the challenges or opportunities for getting to scale in that region?
Brian: Well, I would say the first challenge is that we have a quarter million seaweed farmers to work with to regenerate their livelihoods and their sustenance. Beyond that, there are 5 million hectares of rice and millions of rice farmers in the Philippines. This single interventional loan could enable self-sufficiency on rice, for example, and beyond that, being able to reduce the dependence on expensive nitrate fertilizer by 20% or more while maintaining yields.
That's effectively reducing the fossil fuel energy required to make that fertilizer. That's one and a half percent of all energy production globally goes into making nitrate fertilizer. That's a huge reduction in fossil fuels. Secondly, 20% less nitrate means 20% less nitrous oxide emissions coming off the soil which is a greenhouse gas with 300 times the power of carbon dioxide. Finally, 20% less runoff going back into the sea.
It represents a real opportunity to develop more sustainable practices while maintaining yields and actually saving costs for the farmer because right now nitrate fertilizer has quadrupled in price here in Australia just based on the disruptions that we've seen associated with the Ukrainian war and other challenges. Our challenge and our opportunity is to find these ways to develop more regenerative agriculture that has less dependence on fossil fuel-based inputs.
Hilary: How are you going to do that, it's quite a challenge.
Brian: Our first product is a seaweed foliar bio-stimulant that you spray on the leaves of your plants in the morning. Like most seaweed amendments, this liquid bio-stimulant goes in through the stomata of the plants in the morning, upregulates the gene expression of the plants, and actually, improves the uptake efficiency of the plant for nitrate and phosphate other nutrients.
It's like a fertilizer multiplier. You get a more effective utilization. We've seen incredible results for rice, for fruit trees, and even for raw crops. There are all sorts of crops where the supplies, vegetables, and whatnot. Most flowering crops will benefit from this.
There's only been 3% market adoption in the United States, perhaps 6% in Europe but you have a chance to scale this by an order of magnitude and ultimately, develop more regenerative solutions for our agriculture that ultimately involves a deeper understanding of the living soil and this can help to ultimately foster beneficial soil microbial communities that can be part of the equation towards developing sustainable agriculture.
Hilary: It's neat to see how some solutions that work for the ocean can then be multiplied as they're brought to land.
Brian: We call it a circular ecology, and that is from sea to land back to sea again. I'm writing an article with Dave Holmgren and Scott Spillias from the University of Queensland this quarter on applying the dozen permaculture design principles to the ocean, to the marine environment. Dave told me because he was a student of Bill Mollison who really helped to discover the principles of permaculture.
Back in the '60s, Bill Mollison was a Kelp Forest Expert off the eastern shores of Tasmania. It was his deep ecological understanding of that marine environment that led to his inspirations of permaculture that he had then applied to the temperate rainforest of Tasmania and the marsupials that lived there and their relationship with the forest. The forest provided habitat.
The forest provided food, and yet, their impact was regenerative. It was a positive impact. They were helping the forest. Why couldn't humanity have a regenerative impact on the forest as well, whether it's the terrestrial forest on land or the kelp forest in the ocean? This is an inspiration that I think is profound.
One of our great advisors, Tom Chi from Google X fame likes to draw an analogy with ants and it turns out the biomass of ants on the planet equals the biomass of humanity on the planet. In fact, they have 10 times the appetite of humanity. Every day they're eating 10 times the biomass that humans are. The difference is the ants are eating regeneratively.
They're actually contributing to the soil.
They're cleaning up little messes. They're actually regenerating the ecosystem. If we take this aircraft carrier that we call the agribusiness world and we turn it just five or 10 degrees to the right and we really move it towards sustainability towards regenerative practices, we can help humanity eat regeneratively and develop food security regeneratively and have that contribute to ecosystem health rather than extracting that health. I think that's a great opportunity for us to work for in the coming years.
Hilary: That's wonderful.
Brian: Thank you.
Hilary: To wrap things up, we’ll turn to our hot seat with fill in the blank questions. When I want to recharge I…?
Brian: I get into nature. Nature is a great way of recharging and ultimately, we're in a little Garden of Eden here in Australia, we call it Earth 2.0 because, instead of deer and other creatures, we've got kangaroos and wallabies.
We've got echidnas and bandicoots and even huntsman spiders, which are always very surprising.
I learned just recently that songbirds evolved in Australia and so we have this amazing proliferation of songbirds. It's just an order of magnitude figure than what I've ever heard in America. We're enjoying the morning songbirds each morning and the variety is astounding. I feel as though, [chuckles] we've died and gone to Heaven Earth 2.0. we get another try, and it's like, wow, you can enjoy the wonder.
I, as a child, had a wonder of nature and it was wonderful and now it's like, oh, you're in a whole new world, and you get to enjoy and appreciate the wonder of a whole new planet Earth that is very different. I hope that we can preserve a lot of these ecosystems and help to regenerate them to their pre-industrial glory.
Hilary: A new application for kelp that I'd like to see is?
Brian: There are some interesting applications, for example, with kelp leather. Kelp Leather is a drawing and curing process that enables a vegetarian or vegan approach to textiles and materials. Kelp has loads of cellulose and hemicellulose. I think between kelp leather and kelp ropes, I'd love for ropes in the future and fishing nets to be made from kelp cellulose materials. Why can't we build strong fibers this way and I see that as a huge opportunity going forward. That's just, I'd say, two of a dozen potential applications. The third one I'll mention are nutraceuticals. I have a little dried powdered seaweed nutraceutical every day. Look what's happened to me over the past few years.
I'm a lot older than I look. Anyway, I recommend that seaweed nutraceuticals are a superfood. They are transformative and I will just say whether it comes to digestive health or immune system response, it is amazing how much of a superfood [unintelligible 00:22:35] is and other forms of dry seaweed.
Hilary: Advice I'd give my younger self.
Brian: I'm going to quote some advice that was given to me by one of my advisors at Caltech, Richard Feynman, and he said, "Vote with your feet. Choose to work on projects that have great meaning." I think that has enormous impact. It's one thing that in this day and age to have a sustainable career, economic sustainability and all, but we're moving into a critical generation and that critical generation is to be part of the regeneration that this planet's going to need in order for civilization to survive intact. Working on and choosing fields and projects that have great meaning to you personally is huge, it's a wellspring of motivation and I think it results in abundant and thriving lifestyle.
Hilary: I love that. Great advice. My climate hero is?
Brian: Oh, there are so many [unintelligible 00:23:41] Clearly, Paul Hawken has stated the case that we need to regenerate our natural bounty in soils and in the seas, on land, and in the oceans. We're very happy to be part of the regenerative movement that can enable a sustainable future. We're on this spaceship earth together with 8 million other species, but like it or not, we've become the planet's thermostat because we've just kicked ourselves out of the Garden of Eden. We've had 10,000 years of stable climate from which civilization has developed.
Before then, for millions and millions of years, you had climate chaos. You had huge warming, the [unintelligible 00:24:25] maximum, almost no ice on the planet, five to 10 degrees warmer and you've had snowball earth for a hundred million years. You had almost the entire planet frozen. Imagine trying to create a civilization on a mostly frozen planet Earth. We've had this Goldilocks period, but like it or not, humanity has just kicked itself out of the Garden of Eden. We've condemned ourselves to more than 10 feet of sea level rise, that means so many coastal communities are going to be inundated.
Similarly, we're looking at food security challenges and I will tell you no civilization in history has survived a collapse of the seas and the soils. That's the prescription with business as usual. We have time to change, but we have to accelerate, we have to turn the aircraft carrier around, change the way we do food security, decarbonize first of all, draw down the thousand gigatons that will need to draw down in order to get back to a healthy climate. In the meantime, look at how we can refreeze the Arctic and provide enough cooling to enable a jet stream to get back on a stable track to where we can have reasonable weather from Europe to the Americas to Australasia.
In order to preserve a healthy climate and maintain that, we're going to need to look at fairly active interventions like refreezing the Arctic in order to sustain healthy climate this century. Paul is a great example of that, I think Sir James Lovelock. I really appreciated working with him over the past 20 years. I had a chance to spend some time with him in California and he really articulated the need to be in equilibrium and homeostasis with the living system of the planet Earth. The climate has a huge influence on life, and life on the planet has a huge influence on climate.
We have to be really, I would say, stewards of the planet because like it or not, we've become the planet's thermostat. Unless we can keep it in a back into a stable range, we just kicked the soccer ball over the hill and into the next valley. Can we go get that soccer ball and bring it back into the lovely Goldilocks world that we've enjoyed for the last 10,000 years? The third person I would mention would be Amory Lovins and his work at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He talked about the $5 trillion positive net present value to being green and beyond that, to really decarbonizing the way we live and to being part of our regenerative future. Those are three influencers that I would say are so important.
Hilary: Fantastic. Then, finally, to me, climate-positive means.
Brian: Climate positive goes far beyond carbon negative because if we get to zero carbon, but we're on a dead planet, we will have failed. Thus, it means not only getting us back to a healthy climate but doing so while ensuring that most, if not all of the species that were on this planet when we arrived, are on this planet when we leave.
Hilary: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Brian, for taking the time to meet with us. Congratulations on your recent successes, and we're excited to watch you bring all of these solutions to scale.
Brian: Thank you.
Hilary: If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, please leave us a leave a rating and review on Apple and Spotify. This really helps us reach more listeners.
You can also let us know what you thought via Twitter @ClimatePosiPod or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Hilary Langer.
And this is Climate Positive.