All posts by Natalie Curnes

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Innovation in the Ocean

Climate change has cast a pall over the fate of our vast oceans. Failing fisheries, rising oceans, destroyed coral reefs and salinity change point towards a dim oceanic future. Innovations battling climate change however are using the ocean in hopes of halting some of these consequences.

Below is a list of innovations in oceans helping to reverse climate change or improve ocean ecosystems.


  1. The PowerBuoy 
A PowerBuoy floats in the ocean. Photograph by ThinkDefense.
A PowerBuoy floats in the ocean. Photograph by ThinkDefense.

The PowerBuoy is a renewable energy invention that harnesses the ocean’s energy.

The PowerBuoy runs off of marine hydrokinetic energy or MHK. MHK is a type of energy produced by harnessing the energy form the movement of waves, currents and tides.

In addition to producing renewable energy, the PowerBuoy is also environmentally friendly. The water device has no known detrimental effects on surrounding ocean environments.

A PowerBuoy is currently installed off the coast of New Jersey and provides offshore activities with safe, reliable electricity. The PowerBuoy’s current most applicable use is providing electricity to offshore power markets.

The PowerBuoy is built off of a scalable model, and can be installed in any convenient ocean location.

Renewable ocean energy is also an advantageous source of energy because 13% of the world’s urban population lives near coastlines.

Inventions that harness the energy of the ocean could help transform the sources of energy worldwide. Finding more sources of renewable energy can help stabilize the generation uncertainty of solar and wind power.


  1. Offshore Wind
Offshore wind turbines spin off the coast of Denmark. Photograph by Eskinder Debebe for the United Nations.
Offshore wind turbines spin off the coast of Denmark. Photograph by Eskinder Debebe for the United Nations.

The ocean serves as an excellent source for reliable, steady wind. While onshore wind in the United States is heavily popular, offshore wind around the globe is becoming increasingly feasible.

Offshore wind turbines can be installed in the ocean and use the steady, strong ocean wind to generate electricity. The spinning turbines generate energy, which is then transmitted to onshore locations.

Offshore wind in Europe is particularly popular. In the year 2014, as much as 3000 MW of offshore wind power was connected to the grid. The majority of the added offshore wind power was provided by Germany.

Since then, Germany has only continued to increase its reliability on offshore wind by installing more and more offshore wind turbines.

The US has one offshore wind structure, despite the country’s massive wind potential. Offshore wind has faced a lot of opposition partly due to aesthetics.

David Rogers is a state director at Environment North Carolina, an environmental advocacy organization. Rogers explains why North Carolina and the U.S. lack offshore wind projects.

“I think their are a couple of reasons why it feels like offshore wind is moving more slowly than we would like. The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s a relatively new technology, especially in the U.S., where to date we have no offshore wind capacity anywhere,” Rogers says. “The other factor currently is the cost associated with offshore wind. Because it’s a new technology, we haven’t built the economies of scale that other energy sources have developed to help lower costs.”

Offshore wind does face many drawbacks including political opposition, high cost of installment, scale and natural disaster threat.

Offshore wind nonetheless has proven extremely feasible and reliable in EU energy markets.


  1. Coral Reef Oil Rigs
Fish swim around coral structures in Pohnpei. Photograph by David Burdick for the NOAA Photo Library.
Fish swim around coral structures in Pohnpei. Photograph by David Burdick for the NOAA Photo Library.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing ocean inventions, or should we say recycling projects, has been coral reef oil rigs.

Scientists have found new uses for abandoned oil rigs – turn them into coral reefs. Since climate change has been devastating coral reefs worldwide, scientists are looking towards artificial reefs to save coral reef habitats. Abandoned oil rigs are one such artificial reef.

The makeshift coral reefs have proven successful. One such abandoned oil rig off the coast of California is thriving with marine life.

Some groups disapprove of converting rigs to reefs, however. Due to the large amount of oil spills from some California oil rigs, many want them permanently and completely removed. A spokeswoman from the Environmental Defense Center argues that oil companies should have to pay for the removal of defective rigs.

Brian Naess, who serves as a lecturer for the University of North Carolina’s Coral Reef Ecology and Management class, explains why he is in favor of artificial reefs.

“I do support artificial reefs, so long as they do not pose a contamination threat or pose a navigational hazard. There is literature about the dangers of using structures composed of metals, as they will eventually rust and fall apart.” Naess says. “But, I think if it’s done well, an artificial reef will act as a place for fish to congregate, a surface for coral and sponges to attach to, and, potentially, as a place for dive operators to visit.”

Many rigs are being converted due to the large amount of marine life they have been seen to harbor. With coral reef habitats being destroyed worldwide, either rigs or other artificial structures may have to take the place of true coral reefs.

NASA Concerned Over Sea Level Rise

NASA has recently been at the forefront of sea level rise research and information. The space exploration agency has begun to express an intense sense of concern over future sea level rise. While NASA is mainly focused on space exploration, the agency has personal and public reason to be concerned.


Why is NASA so concerned over sea level rise? 

There is a general consensus among NASA scientists that the predicted three feet rise in sea levels by 2100 is likely accurate. Furthermore, the scientists also agree that even more than a three-foot rise is probably inevitable.

NASA is able to research and study rising sea temperatures as many of its satellites and monitors are in space to do just this. NASA has decided to use much of its’ technology to monitor geological shifts and is helping policymakers understand the current climate situation.

A photo from space reveals the Florida coastline, location of NASA's Space Coast and Kennedy Space Center. Photograph by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
A photo from space reveals the Florida coastline, location of NASA’s Space Coast and Kennedy Space Center. Photograph by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Is there more to it than just general concern over changing sea levels? 

Yes – in fact, NASA fears that the agency will be damagingly affected by rising sea levels.

Many NASA facilities are positioned on coastlines, directly at risk for rising sea levels. The Kennedy Space Center in particular is at dire risk of damages from sea level rise.

The Kennedy Space Center, located in Florida along the Atlantic Ocean, represents one of NASA’s largest launching pads. The Kennedy Center is part of a larger attraction called the space coast, more than 75 miles of NASA sites and museums.

The entire space coast is currently being threatened by sea level rise.

Carlton Hall, a chief scientist at the space center’s ecological program, says that the ocean used to be more than 50 yards away. Since then, the coastline has begun rapidly retreating.

Recent observations have begun to worry NASA employees about the future security of their sites.


What are the agency going to do about it? 

NASA’s ability to gather research and understand climate change may help the agency address the impending damage. NASA is spending millions to rebuild dunes and replace protective sands.

But rebuilding dunes however won’t last against three feet of sea level rise.

The agency is considering alternative solutions that include building hard barriers around facilities to protect against waves. The agency is also considering the worst-case scenario of retreating the facilities. A solution of this magnitude would come at a very high cost.

While no extreme measures need to be taken today, NASA understands the certainty of more intense storms and sea level rise. NASA will continue to monitor from space and on ground the sea level rise predicament.

Rising Oceans: Your Most Important Numbers

Scientists across the world point to an inevitable rise in sea level globally. Melting glaciers, coupled with overall rising temperatures, are causing oceans to rise and expand at a rapid rate. Cities such as Miami, New Orleans and Charleston could find themselves under water in coming centuries if oceans continue to rise. With 123.3 million people in the U.S. living on the coast, sea level rise is an extremely threatening issue to many American citizens. The impending effects of sea level rise could be mitigated, but likely not reversed.

Below are the most important numbers to know about sea level rise.


3.2 millimeters…

…the average annual amount of sea level rise over the past twenty years.

Data shows that sea levels have been rising for the past century. The new 3.2 millimeters figure, however, signifies a steep incline of sea level rise annually. This figure represents a two-fold increase in average sea level rise compared to the previous 80 years.

This number parallels the increased amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been emitted worldwide in recent years and rising temperatures. From the period 1880 to 2015, the hottest 16 years were all recorded from 1998 on.

Increased atmospheric temperatures are also making oceans hotter too. Annual ocean surface heat has risen by 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit compared to the 20th century annual average.

Warm ocean surface levels cause ocean water to expand, and thus rise.


3 feet…

….the estimated inevitable amount of sea level rise by the year 2100.

Countries such as Germany and Denmark are racing to reverse climate change by cutting CO2 emissions, yet some effects cannot be undone. Many scientists agree that a sea level rise of around three feet by the year 2100 is inevitable.

The rate of melting glaciers and warming temperatures will cause this rise in sea level even if preventative actions are taken.

In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a World Meteorological Organization, notes that it is very likely that sea levels will continue to rise for years after 2100. The question is by how much, depending on the measures we take to stop climate change.

Also, the predicted three feet of sea level rise will not just affect certain regions of the globe, but virtually all regions worldwide. The IPCC predicts that 95% of all ocean area will be affected.


A large crack forms in the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Photograph by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
A large crack forms in the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Photograph by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

5 square miles…

…the approximate size of a chunk of ice that recently broke off from a Greenland glacier.

A chunk of ice roughly the size of Manhattan recently broke off from Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier. The chunk of ice was one of the biggest to ever break off in history.

Scientists are shocked by the rapid retreat of the Jakobshavn glacier, and note that the amount of ice retreating will not simply be restored in winter. Previous model predictions of ice loss pointed towards a much slower retreat of the glacier.

Greenland is of particular importance to the issue of sea level rise as the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctic ice sheet are the two biggest in the world.

The current rapid retreat of glaciers, possibly faster than any rate recorded in history, could mean devastating sea level rise.


13.1 million…

…people in the U.S. that could be detrimentally affected by sea level rise.

This number represents the amount of Americans that could be affected by sea level rise. Many coastal areas including Miami, New York City, the North Carolina Outer Banks and other coastal communities are at risk for sea level rise. The millions of citizens living in these communities will also be at risk.

Brian Naess, an IT Research Developer and Lecturer for the UNC Institute for the Environment explains how sea level rise can affect coastal citizens.

“Coastal communities are threatened by sea level rise in several ways. Higher sea levels means that coastal storms will cause more erosion, as the water will be able to penetrate further inland,” Naess says. “Also, higher sea levels can put infrastructure at risk during flooding events. Some coastal roads are too low or too close to water bodies, and during flooding events, the roads may become un-passable, resulting in stranded citizens.”

Florida is shown to be at more risk than any other state, accounting for around half of the potentially affected population. Other states in the southeast region, such as Georgia and South Carolina, also bear high risk. These states however have less populous coastal cities.

Michael Peña, a resident of Miami, Florida, explains why he isn’t concerned over sea level rise.

“I’ve lived in Miami my whole life, and while people keep saying it could flood in coming years, it’s hard to be concerned over something you can’t see,” Peña says. “I do believe in climate change, but right now I don’t see any immediate effects of it.”

The estimated 13.1 million was recently adjusted upward from a more conservative number. Based on future CO2 output and glacial melting, the number of at-risk Americans could rise further.

Renewables Can Save U.S. Billions in Public Health Costs

Renewable energy is hotly contested in the U.S.; while one side supports the green energy source, the other claims high prices and impracticality.

Renewables, which will need substantial government support to succeed, have faced tremendous pushback.

The infrastructure needed to incorporate renewables into the grid would cost the government now, but could save the U.S. billions later  on.

How, you ask? Switching to renewables will help to slow the dangerous pace of climate change.

Many fail to realize that climate change will have tremendous effects on global public health. Ultimately, the U.S. will pay billions of dollars in public health costs if climate change is not reversed.


Increased Asthma

A rise in asthma is an unusual consequence of climate change. Asthma is triggered by an increase in air pollution and allergies, often caused by pollen.

Pollen patterns have started to drastically change. Climate change alters normal pollen patterns by dictating when plants begin and end the release of pollen. Plants have recently begun to release pollen earlier and for longer periods of time.

Air pollution has also increased as smog, caused by ground level ozone, has increased. Pollution from cars adds to already heightened air pollution.

Asthma is currently costing the U.S. economy and taxpayers billions of dollars and ranks third in the highest causes of child hospitalizations.

The U.S. spent around $56 billion on asthma related medical costs in 2007, and cases have only increased since then. Asthma cases increased by 4.3 million from the period 2001 to 2009, and continues to grow.

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in asthma cases recently,” Katherine McPherson, a nurse at Duke University Hospital, says. “The up and down temperatures in North Carolina have really affected the severity of allergies in the region.”

Investing in renewables is a key factor in reversing climate change. The price to pay now for renewable energy infrastructure is small compared to the cost of asthma in the future.


Water and Food Insecurity

Droughts are becoming more common all over the U.S., as depicted in this photo of a California lake. Photo by Ray Bouknight.

Changing weather patterns can cause extreme droughts and loss of farmland.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, drought intensity and frequency has increased since the 1970s. The IPCC notes the direct link to climate change.

Farming has been drastically affected by climate change. For each degree rise in temperature, the U.S. corn and soybean yields drop by around 17 percent. Similar studies point to a disastrous drop in rice and maize production due to heightened temperatures.

“The U.S. is facing a food shortage; there is no other way to say it,” Nicole Curnes, a masters in public health candidate at The Dartmouth Institute, says. “Farmland will continue to disappear and droughts will persist, as the ones we have recently observed in California. Food prices will continue to rise, which will severely affect many Americans.”

The U.S. economy will suffer greatly if food prices continue to rise and the U.S. faces a food crisis. Poor food choices and low food availability will cause public health costs for malnutrition to burden all Americans.


Changing Disease Patterns

Changing weather patterns have a profound impact on the spread of diseases.

Insects, such as mosquitos, have been able to spread disease more rapidly due to changing climates. Lyme disease cases, particularly linked to climate change, have seen a drastic increase in the U.S. More than 30,000 reports of lime disease were recorded in the U.S. in 2012.

And malaria is another concern.

Changing weather patterns have allowed mosquitos carrying malaria to access warm areas previously not reachable. Such areas were free of malaria in the past.

“Its fairly obvious how climate change is attributing to the spread of disease,” Curnes says. “Mosquitos, the main carriers of many diseases, including malaria, are spreading to places previously never seen. The U.S. is now worried about malaria due to rising temperatures, and malaria hasn’t been an issue in the U.S. in decades.”

Taxpayers may soon begin paying for mosquito-born diseases not previously seen in the U.S. such as Zika, dengue fever and malaria.

The hypothetical money these diseases would cost the U.S. in public health costs could be invested in green energy to reverse the detrimental effects of climate change.


Five Clean Tech Innovations That Will Shape the Future

Thousands of clean tech startups have popped up across the United States in hopes of developing the best new clean technology. Countless inventions have already transformed the clean tech space, pointing towards a cleaner, greener future.

Below is a list of five clean tech innovations that will reshape the clean tech space for years to come:

  1. Nest Thermostat and Internet of Things

The Nest Thermostat belongs to a broader category of innovation called the Internet of Things (IoT).

Internet of Things refers to a technology network that allows objects to collect and transfer data to the internet without human interaction. Data from the objects can then allow humans to gather information on trends, habits or patterns.

Perry Smith is the cofounder and president of AIMSCO, a cloud-based production operations company.

“The Internet of Things is the digitization of the physical world,” Smith said. “IBM has recently announced a separate business unit focused solely on the Internet of Things.”

The Nest Thermostat in particular collects data about one’s household heating and cooling habits.

For example, if you turn the heat up in the morning and back down at night, the thermostat can pick up on this. After a few days of habitual temperature schedules, the thermostat will automatically set your preferred temperature at the appropriate time.

The thermostat can also be controlled from a smart phone. If you prefer for the house to be heated before you arrive home, you can simply use your phone to increase the temperature on your way home from work.

The thermostat saves a household energy and money. Heat is turned on when necessary and automatically or manually turned off when not.

The nest thermostat is one of many innovations that will help us responsibly consume and conserve energy.

  1. Sustainable Batteries

Energy storage has jeopardized renewable energy feasibility from the start.

While many storage batteries exist, current batteries are not capable of storing enough energy and are made from unsustainable or toxic components.

Aquion energy has solved at least half of this problem.

Aquion energy has released a clean, sustainable and cost-effective battery for storing energy. The battery is extremely durable and built to last for many years.

Many battery storage companies have gone bankrupt in recent years as a result of technical problems. Aquion aims to solve many of these issues as well.

One company in particular went out of business due to a battery catching on fire. The Aquion battery uses non-corrosive materials in its build.

The Aquion battery is applicable for off-grid, micro-grid or grid-scale energy storage uses.

Sustainable batteries such as Aquion’s will allow renewable energy to be a feasible energy source for the United States and beyond.


  1. Floating Solar Farm 
Photo by VIUDeepBay: A floating platform of solar panels
Photo by VIUDeepBay: A floating platform of solar panels

Japan, a country pressed for space, has come up with an innovative way to continue expanding its solar farms.

Electronics company Kyocera has announced it will begin work on the world’s largest floating solar farm.

The floating solar farm is expected to be 180,000 square meters. The estimated energy generation will power around 5,000 Japanese homes and the expected completion date is March 2018.

But this isn’t Kyocera’s first rodeo—it’s the company’s fourth floating solar farm. The other three, built in 2014 and 2015, are much smaller in size.

This solar farm will positively impact the environment by eliminating the equivalent energy need for consumption of 19,000 barrels of oil a year.

  1. Nanoleaf

LED lighting has revolutionized the light bulb space since its invention in 1962. LED lighting uses around 75 percent less energy than an incandescent lightbulb. On average, it also lasts 25 years longer.

The Nanoleaf, a variation on the LED light bulb, is now one of the most energy efficient light bulbs on the market.

The Nanoleaf was recently awarded the 2015 SEAD Global Efficiency Medal recognizing its incredible energy efficiency design. The SEAD is a sustainability organization consisting of seventeen countries.

The Nanoleaf bulb is designed to use energy as efficiently as possible and to emit as little heat as possible.
This innovative LED bulb helps to conserve energy in households, leading to lower electricity bills.

  1. Digital Windfarm
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

GE unveiled a new technology called the Digital Windfarm in May 2015. This technology enables wind turbines to collect and transfer data to the internet to be analyzed, similar to the Internet of Things.

The technology allows turbines to communicate with other turbines on the same wind farm or surrounding wind farms. The turbines can then use the data to optimize performance by predicting peaks in wind, and also to predict maintenance schedules.

Kellan Dickens is a product line growth leader for GE Renewable Energy.

“This technology allows you to customize and optimize your wind farm so that it can operate at a higher level of productivity,” Dickens said.

The technology developed by GE helps windfarms improve energy output and operate more efficiency.

More efficient wind farms translate to lower expenses, making wind energy a more cost effective energy solution.


Should the U.S. Run Primarily on Natural Gas, or Renewable Energy?

In recent years, natural gas has taken off as a main source of energy for the United States. However, there are consequences to using natural gas as an energy source. Fracking, a technique used to extract natural gas, can poison nearby water systems. Furthermore, natural gas leaks can occur, in which natural gas leaks into the atmosphere from storage pipes. One such leak is currently occurring in California, causing nearby residents to fall ill. The leak is also spewing methane into the atmosphere, severely damaging to the environment. Chapel Hill students below comment on whether we should continue to use natural gas as a main source of energy, or if the U.S. should switch its attention to developing renewable energy.

Natural Gas Leaks Across the US

Natural Gas Leaks Across the U.S.

What is a Natural Gas Leak?

A natural gas leak occurs when natural gas escapes from a natural gas storage facility. Methane, the main component of natural gas, spews out of these facilities into the atmosphere1. Methane is not only dangerous to the environment but also to living organisms2.

Natural gas is stored in facilities around the country to provide us with energy. Natural gas is quickly becoming an extremely prominent source of energy in the US. Natural Gas can also escpae into the atmosphere through natural sources9.


Why Are Natural Gas Leaks So Dangerous?

Methane can cause short-term health effects to humans, including, dizziness, headaches and vomiting3. Although no long-term effects have been observed, the short-term effects can be severe. Residents in areas of a gas leak often must be displaced1.

Methane has also been rumored to affect domestic animals, causing nosebleeds and shortness of breath. Residents in areas with gas leaks have observed animals falling ill and even dying4. However, little scientifically is known on what effect methane has on domestic animals.

The main concern of methane is the long-term effect this gas has on the environment. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is an extremely significant contributor to climate change5. Scientists estimate that methane warms the earth at 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide6.


Where in the U.S. Are These Leaks Happening?

The most recent Natural Gas leak has occurred in Porter Ranch, California7. The leak, caused by Southern California Gas Company, has been occurring since October 23rd 8. The California governor has declared a state of emergency, and 2,200 households have been displaced9.

The October 23rd leak is the largest natural gas leak in California’s history10. Stopping the leak has proved to be tricky, and could take up to four months6. The leak is coming from a mile and a half underground, making it a tough fix8.

However, California residents aren’t the only ones who will feel the effects. The leak’s impact on global warming is comparable to driving 4.5 million cars a day5. Environmental scientists communicate that this leak will affect everyone across the globe as temperatures rise.

Without a solution, 110,000 pounds of methane will continue to leak into the atmosphere hourly9. The leak negates California’s ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions in coming years6. Estimates predict this leak has the same environmental effect as do six coal-fired plants daily5.

These leaks aren’t limited to California or even the United States. Leaks are prevalent all across the globe, some leaks more serious than others. A leak in Venezuela spewed 10 times the amount of methane as the California leak1.

To slow climate change, natural gas leaks around the world must be reduced.


  1. “Shocking study shows how much methane leaked globally”, January 18, 2016, The Weather Network
  2. “California Natural Gas Leak is Just One of Thousands Across the Country” January 18, 2016, PBS Newshour
  3. “California Governor Declares Emergency Over Porter Ranch Gas Leak” January 7, 2016, CNN
  4. “Natural Gas Leak Near Los Angeles May Be Sickening To Animals” January 18, San Jose Mercury News
  5. “This is How Much the California Gas Leak is Hurting The Planet”, January 14, 2016, Time Magazine
  6. “Dangerous Methane Leak Requires Emergency Measures”, January 7, 2016, Scientific American
  7. “Huge California Gas Leak Will Come to an End In February, Utility Says” January 19, 2016, Huffington Post
  8. “Stopping Natural Gas Leak Near Los Angeles is a Complex Fix” January 9, 2016, The ABC News
  9. “Thousands Sickened, Toxic Gas Leak Containment Plans Delayed” January 17, 2016, The Weather Network
  10. “California Residents Vent Frustrations over State’s Biggest Gas Leak” January 16, 2016, Yahoo News