Calling All Science Geeks: NRDC Teams With XPRIZE on $2 Million Global Competition To Take On Ocean Acidification


For more than a decade, scientists have been sounding the alarm about ocean acidification, one of the greatest threats to our planet’s seas. This dramatic change in ocean chemistry spells trouble for many species. Researchers have already found harm to west coast oyster larvae and tiny sea creatures called pteropods from changing ocean pH. Lab testing shows that many other shellfish, corals and fish are likely to be at risk.

But while scientists have long been able to read the ocean’s temperature and oxygen levels, reading this third major vital sign, pH, is a more difficult and expensive endeavor. That's one reason ocean acidification has long remained a largely silent environmental crisis. Even now, with pH technology in hand, the cost is so high that many researchers are without the sophisticated tools they need to thoroughly monitor this global threat. 

To identify which species, fisheries, and human populations are at most risk, and to reduce the harm, we urgently need to create a global monitoring network for ocean acidification. That’s why, today, NRDC is partnering with the XPrize Foundation, a non-profit organization that creates competitions to encourage technological breakthroughs, in support of the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE.  

Noted philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, sponsor of the successful 2011 Oil Cleanup X Challenge, has funded this global competition to reward innovators who can radically improve our ability to monitor the ocean’s rapidly changing chemistry. New technologies will be a boon to the nation’s multi-billion dollar fishing and aquaculture industries and also to the public, educating us about how carbon dioxide pollution is affecting our oceans, and pointing us toward ways we can adapt.

Aquaculture companies in the Pacific Northwest are already using this kind of monitoring to protect their threatened industry. There, the economically important oyster-growing industry nearly collapsed starting in 2006, when larvae in hatcheries began to die. After several years of research, scientists discovered that the cause was ocean acidification and the corrosive seawater that intermittently washes into hatcheries. With federal money, hatcheries were able to install pH and CO2 monitors so operators could get warning of acidified waters, and take steps to keep their larvae alive. Today, that shellfish industry is once again thriving.

Imagine if someone could invent the breakthrough technology that allowed us to do this important work in more places, aiding more communities, while leading us to a new understanding of the ocean’s vast depths.

One immediate use would be to help push forward the goals of the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act, which Congress passed in 2009 to monitor the progression of ocean acidification and better understand how it threatens national fisheries. FOARAM led to the commencement of a U.S. monitoring network for ocean acidification.  However, due to underfunding, only a fraction of the system has been realized. More affordable technology could get this initiative back on track.

Who might take up this challenge? Students, chemistry professors, inventors working in health technology, and anyone else with the talent, background and drive to radically reinvent ocean monitoring and create solutions for the future.  

Specifics of the Prize 

The Challenge starts this month, September 2013, and will last for 22 months. After a Fair round, during which teams partake in a poster session and Team Summit, three more phases will put teams through a series of tests in laboratory, coastal and deep-water environments to assess the effectiveness of their sensors. In the final Ocean Trial round, teams will test their sensors on a six-day ship borne trial in the North Pacific off the coast of Hawaii. Two purses are available, each with a first place prize of $750,000 and a second place prize of $250,000, for a total of $2 million in winnings. Teams may compete for and win both purses.

To follow along the stages of the Challenge, or to register your team, visit Ocean Health XPRIZE

Read NRDC President Frances Beinecke's Huffington Post article on the XPRIZE here 

Photo Credit: Paul Edmondson Photography