Rock Bottom

Several rattail fish swim past a "corn stover" that MBARI researchers placed on the seafloor of Monterey Bay in 2009. Scientists have been studying how fast the material is being broken down by animals and microbes.

On Nov. 30, a crew of scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute set out on a six-day expedition to research different aspects of deep-sea ecology around Sur Ridge, a seamount between 2,600-4,600 feet deep about 40 miles off the coast of Big Sur.

Among the research goals was to check in on a corn stover—essentially a hay bale made from corn stalks. The scientists sunk it in 2009 to a depth of 10,500 feet to test a theory from a scientific paper, published in 2008, which posited that such bales could be used as a carbon sink—sequestering carbon dioxide—and could be a tool to combat climate change.

Foul weather averted that research goal, but MBARI Senior Scientist Jim Barry says researchers have already checked in on the stover five times over the past nine years, and this much is clear: the stover is degrading very slowly, meaning that in theory, the process could indeed work as a carbon sink, as the carbon dioxide from the stover would take centuries to reach the ocean’s surface.

Still, Barry remains skeptical the tool could ever be scaled to a degree that would be meaningful to combat climate change, which is increasingly becoming an existential threat to humans and wildlife across the world.

That said, he’s not ruling it out.

“We are headed into a period, by all projections, of massive changes in the earth,” Barry says. “Our reaction to that big change in the future might be vastly different than the things we’re considering now.

“I don’t see it as a viable option right now, and I hope it doesn’t happen in the future,” he continues, “but we might be forced into a corner.”

It’s a corner he thinks we may be backing into.

“I don’t see us taking big actions to mitigate climate change,” Barry says. “Fast forward a little bit, 50 or 60 years, and the changes may be so severe that we pull out all the stops.”

Barry says his team plans to continue checking in on the stover, perhaps as early as April. Best%20of%20Star_Teeny.tif

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