The Outer Banks are already on the front lines when it comes to climate change, but largely for the wrong reasons. Rising seas and ferocious hurricanes, both fueled by global warming, regularly threaten seaside homes and roads along the narrow strip of barrier islands off North Carolina.
Now researchers hope to use those same beaches with a little help from a volcanic rock popular with jewelers to see if they can reverse global warming.
Vesta, a California-based utility company that researches solutions to climate change, wants to sink 20,000 cubic meters of ground olivine, covering 75 acres, in water 25 feet deep about 1,500 feet offshore. of Duck in the northern Outer Banks. The idea is to see if “weathering” the common mineral can safely reduce the acidity of seawater and help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
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“Vesta’s approach accelerates the carbon removal part of the carbonate-silicate cycle, which is an ancient natural process,” the company’s website says. “Our primary method of doing this is coastal carbon capture, in which we add the natural mineral olivine, ground into beach-compatible sand, to coastal protection projects. There it gradually dissolves in seawater. , reducing ocean acidity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Carbon dioxide, linked to emissions from fossil fuels like coal and gasoline-powered cars, is the primary greenhouse gas emitted by humans that helps warm the atmosphere, leading to profound climate change impacts in the world. world. Among the impacts attributed to climate change in North Carolina are rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and more powerful and larger hurricanes. While much attention has been paid to reducing “active” emissions, such as replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy sources, many climate scientists have said that carbon removal strategies to cope to the massive amounts of carbon dioxide already pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution must be part of the solution.
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Enter olivine, an abundant volcanic rock named for its green hue and known to jewelers as peridot. Large-scale deployment of olivine sand mixed with other materials in beach construction projects and on shallow sea areas of the shelf has the potential to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from sea, Vesta says. the atmosphere.
“On a large scale, (Coastal Carbon Capture) projects can remove up to 20 times more (carbon dioxide) than they emit,” says Vesta.
Although Vesta has conducted laboratory experiments and modeling and a few small coastal projects, the Duck proposal, which could hit the water next summer, would be one of the biggest real-world tests yet and the first performed in the open sea. Project goals include reaffirming previous research findings regarding carbon capture and ensuring that olivine-infused sand is safe for marine life.
“The need for the project is to gather relevant information that will help determine the effectiveness of the pilot project and identify any limitations or constraints that could be addressed to help facilitate a large-scale deployment of olivine sand in the ‘coastal and marine environment,’ says the project’s permit application with the Wilmington office of the Army Corps of Engineers.
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Although a great concept with many unanswered questions, Vesta’s proposal has garnered support from major players in the environmental community, including Microsoft co-founder and climate change activist Bill Gates.
Roger Shew, a coastal geologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is intrigued by the possibilities of Vesta’s proposal. He said the demonstration project should help answer questions about how quickly “weathering” will take place and how much carbon will be sequestered.
“The weathering of olivine, like other materials, is enhanced with greater surface area,” Shew said via email. “That’s why the rock/mineral will be ground into sand-sized particles. Weathering is also enhanced if there is occasional movement of the materials. That’s why it would be important to place them in the energy wave zone.”
Vesta has held several meetings with Duck residents and city officials since first launching the proposed project last year, and while generally positive, some pointed questions have been raised.
Tom Green, CEO and co-founder of Vesta, said it’s natural for people to wonder about something new or unfamiliar. But he said engagement with Duck residents and officials has been cordial, informative and reflects the importance they place on protecting their town’s quality of life and the marine environment as a whole. .
Green added that extensive research on olivine sand, early data from our other test projects, and the intentionally small scale of Project Duck indicate that it should be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere without having to adverse impact on the marine environment.
Shew agreed that the low density of olivine in the pilot project, its offshore location and the relatively low amount of gear deployed should not impact the quality of the beach or marine life, including the sea turtle nesting.
Green said the olivine for the Duck Project would come from a mine in Norway, which is currently the largest olivine mine in the world. But if the project is successful and there is pressure to include olivine in other North Carolina beach feeding projects or even in other East Coast states, the Tar Heel State has abundant ore deposits. Shew said areas in western North Carolina, especially around the Spruce Pine mining district, are rich in olivine.
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But why choose a small resort town along the northern Outer Banks for the pilot project?
Well, one of the main reasons is the presence of the Army Engineer Research and Development Center Field Research Facility in Duck. Green said the presence of the lab means the local beach and coastal areas are among the most studied and monitored in the country, allowing researchers to effectively track any impact of olivine sand on the local marine environment.
The body is also helping fund Vesta’s project, and lab officials are collaborating on it. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro would also be involved in monitoring the project, according to the project permit application.
Green said the cost of the Duck project, including research and monitoring costs, is estimated at $6 million. Although this is a considerable sum for a relatively small project, he said that larger olivine-infused beach projects would have the advantage of economies of scale and further development of the economy. “green”.
“The deployment of olivine sand will ultimately be subsidized through the sale of carbon credits generated by each project,” he said via email. “As a result, it will be possible to include olivine in future shoreline protection projects without significantly increasing their cost.”
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Shew said that with climate change being such a significant societal issue in the coming decades, the fact that companies like Vesta are exploring economically and environmentally beneficial solutions that can go hand in hand with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the first place can only help.
“We need a toolbox of solutions,” he said. “Maybe olivine is one of those tools.”
Journalist Gareth McGrath can be reached at GMcGrath@Gannett.com or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network retains full editorial control of the work.
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