Science & Tech

Canada’s oceans in the spotlight: Nurturing the blue economy while lessening the impacts of climate heating

Part 6 of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster: A six-part series

  • Feb 11, 2022
  • 778 words
  • 4 minutes
Kendra MacDonald speaks in front of Canadian, Norwegian and RCGS flags
Supercluster CEO Kendra MacDonald speaks at a two-day symposium in November 2021 on the future of the Arctic and the “blue economy” in Norway and Canada. The Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society teamed up to host the event. (Photo: Ben Powless/CanGeo)
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Five years ago, when Canada’s Ocean Supercluster was just a glint in the eye of government and industry, the importance of the global ocean in crafting solutions to climate heating was rarely discussed. 

Today, as the supercluster nears the end of its inaugural phase, that topic is an integral part of the thinking. And not just in Canada, but around the world, says Kendra MacDonald, the supercluster’s chief executive. All of a sudden, the ocean is acknowledged as a main player in the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. 

“What I’ve found this year is that the conversation is becoming much more mainstream,” MacDonald says. 

The Ocean Supercluster is a not-for-profit set up in 2018 by the federal government with a promise of $153 million to spark the development of innovative commercial solutions for the blue economy. (Four superclusters in other areas were established at the same time.) Steered by industry, the Ocean Supercluster’s first phase ends next March [2023]. 

When it began, the supercluster was aimed mainly at building Canada’s economic heft: growing the marine sector by $14 billion by the end of this decade and adding 3,000 new jobs.  

But the means were novel: attracting investment from the private sector into new inventions and technology, getting them to market, encouraging collaboration among isolated small businesses and startups and nurturing a more diverse workforce to harness greater creativity across the marine sphere. Main areas of innovation were to be digitization and ecologically sustainable solutions.

And while a parallel goal was to make sure the ocean was not further harmed by these new activities or was even made healthier, now, the focus has widened. The powerful role of the ocean in removing carbon from the atmosphere has taken on a new urgency as climate heating intensifies and as scores of countries, including Canada, pledge to get their carbon emissions to net-zero. 

One of the diverse array of organizations and programs the supercluster is involved with is the Blue Futures Pathways, which encourages young Canadians to consider "blue economy" careers in areas they might not have considered — things such as cultural tourism, ocean research and technology. (Photo: © Martin Lipman/SOI Foundation)
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That’s because built into those net-zero calculations is the assumption that the ocean will continue to soak up about a third of the climate-heating carbon emitted into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and other activities. 

The problem is that emerging evidence shows that the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon is waning. The cold Southern Ocean, for example, is actually releasing carbon that has been stored in its depths for eons as climate heating destabilizes the structure of the currents. Other parts of the global ocean are simply warming up as temperatures rise, and warm water absorbs less carbon than cold does. 

That leads to another problem. Global net-zero calculations assume that the ocean will continue to do what it’s been doing. But what if the great marine carbon sink continues to ebb? 

“We don’t understand our oceans very well,” MacDonald says. “And those net-zero targets are not necessarily considering land and ocean together and are assuming that the ocean will stay in a relatively stable state. But we know that it’s changing. We don’t know exactly how fast.” 

That means the need for new information and new ways to get that information has become pressing, another opportunity for supercluster companies to help find solutions.

The Ocean Supercluster’s Ocean Aware program aims to help marine industries lessen their impact on the environment. Dartmouth Ocean Technologies Inc., a Nova Scotia-based company, manufactures sensor systems that can be deployed using towed underwater depressors known as V-Wings (shown). (Photo: Dartmouth Ocean Technologies)
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MacDonald credits Ocean Supercluster board member Anya Waite, a biological oceanographer who is scientific director of Canada’s Ocean Frontier Institute, with helping both Canadians and international players understand the need for more information about how the ocean’s carbon role is changing. Dr. Waite is also co-chair of the Global Ocean Observing System, known as GOOS and made several presentations on ocean and carbon at COP 26, the climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland in November.

“This opportunity exists at a time of incredible risk, which is also incredibly important to understand,” MacDonald says. “Hopefully we can increase the overall conversation around the leadership role that Canada can play internationally because it matters to our future as a country. And it matters to our future as humans.” 

MacDonald, who was a partner at the professional services consultancy Deloitte before she joined the supercluster, is in conversations about the supercluster’s next stage and is hoping for another five-year round of funding. So far, the supercluster has put money into more than 60 projects, up from just six when the pandemic began in March 2020. More than 450 companies are involved and together with government, they’ve spent nearly $300 million. 

Some of those projects will show results in the coming months, a prospect that excites her. 

“We feel there’s been a lot of momentum,” she says. “And there’s tremendous opportunity to do a lot more building on what the supercluster has done.”

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