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World Ocean Day

Q&A with Marie-Chantal Ross

We spoke with Marie-Chantal Ross, Program Director of the National Research Council of Canada’s Ocean Program, to discuss the importance of ocean research and innovation, and what it can do to help towards the sustainable management of our ocean.

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What are some of the most pressing issues or challenges facing the world’s oceans today?

I would say the most pressing issue is the health of our ocean and its ability to sustain life.

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How does the National Research Council of Canada’s research contribute to our understanding of ocean ecosystems and their biodiversity?

We have two areas of research; a bio perspective and a coastal resilience one. For example, we work with phytoplankton as a tool to detect and understand environmental changes in the ocean that impact marine organisms.  Phytoplankton are the photosynthetic microbes distributed throughout the ocean that provide roughly 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. We are studying phytoplankton communities to learn more about how populations rapidly restructure in response to physical changes in their environment, including changes in water temperature and chemistry.  Some species in a phytoplankton community rapidly proliferate or disappear, for example, as waters become more acidic, are contaminated in some way or see their temperature increase.  Monitoring natural phytoplankton communities as biosensors will help us to quickly detect changes in the ocean resulting from broader climate change impacts or more localized pollution events.  Better understanding and monitoring of phytoplankton communities can provide us an early warning signal, so we can recognize and address threats to our marine environments more quickly. Plus, phytoplankton absorb carbon and provide us with oxygen.

For coastal resilience, we engineer with nature by working with our collaborators in what is called nature-based solutions. For example, when there’s storm surges or floods or erosion, rather than putting up these gray infrastructures (like breakwaters), we’re now using things like living dykes. These living dykes can be seagrass, an island, or a trough. It’s about using nature and learning from it to help with these resiliency issues so we can adapt to climate change without having our infrastructure washed into sea.

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Can you explain any recent discoveries or breakthroughs in your field of ocean research?

There are always breakthroughs in this space. For example, the global research community has been studying microplastics in marine environments for quite some time. However, new technologies and predictive models must be developed to accurately measure the amount of plastics in the environment and better understand their impacts on marine life.

Recently, the majority of the research has focused on using spherical plastic particles for understanding the impact of microplastics. However, microplastics are not perfectly spherical beads in the real world and their shape, size, and chemical characteristics have important effects on their behaviour and fate in the environment. Some of them can be fibres and they shed. So, we’ve been using zebrafish, a model organism used for research, to characterize and predict the bioaccumulation and toxicity of plastic debris. The NRC has the only government zebra fish lab in Canada and is collaborating closely with other federal organizations including Health Canada and ECCC to support evidence-informed policy-making. The breakthrough is that we are now using Zebrafish to better understand toxicity and biochemical accumulation in mammals, which is new. Once we have the models set up, we can start evaluating different shapes, which will also provide new and very useful information.

We are also researching the dispersion in fate of microplastics. We use numerical modelling and are finding out how microplastics behave in riverine systems because most of the new microplastics in the ocean come out of rivers. We are trying to understand, from an inland waterway perspective, where these microplastics settle and accumulate so that we can study it more and see what effect it’s having in those areas and whether or not we need to remove them.  Our research has shown that microplastics don’t behave at all like nanoplastics. It turns out they are influenced by different forces.  We thought that we would find equal distribution of micro and nano, but we discovered that microplastics settle quickly and don’t get very far. Nanoplastics, on the other hand, continue to disperse and spread out.  We’re finding ways now, to understand these behaviours better so that we can address the issue with scientific rigour to improve the marine environment. We also want to make sure that the environment is placed at equal value to the economy. How can we do this? Once we understand where and how plastic particles settle, we may be able to start extracting them for use in other products and have them be a part of the circular economy.

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Are there any ongoing international collaborations or initiatives in ocean research that you are currently involved in?

We’ve been working with partners in the US on coastal resilience work for quite some time.

Then we also have a collaboration with a German research organization, working with microplastics. They have an AI tool that can detect plastic and macro plastic in rivers. We’re working with them to see if we can expand that tool for microplastics as well as ice and woody debris, because those are quite common in Canadian waters. We would like to start automatically detecting what is what in the waterways.

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What role do you see emerging technologies playing in advancing ocean research in the future?

I see it playing a major role in the ocean industries and the ocean itself. We need a healthy, clean ocean, or there is no humanity. As the climate regulator, a healthy ocean is essential to a healthy planet. A healthy ocean is also home to a large body of ocean industries, and if done properly, you can get a lot of really good economic gain from this while working to restore its health.

There’s a massive role for all technologies and innovation in this space. You can take quantum computing, and quantum in general, and then look at how you can you sense things at the atomic level. That’s going to help us a lot with the carbon cycle, as the ocean itself can store a lot of carbon. So how do you use quantum to figure out what the carbon cycle is so we can potentially start storing some of this carbon in the deep ocean and knowing that it’s safe and healthy? We need technologies to help us with the ocean health and ocean wealth.

Innovation can be greatly enhanced if we are able to bridge technologies such as earth observation, ocean sensing, situational awareness, and digital technologies. It doesn’t matter what cross-cutting technology somebody has, it has an application in the ocean, for both its health and its wealth. There are several industries that use the ocean, that are all sharing the same space. One thing they all need is detection. They all need to understand the currents, they all need to understand the state of the ocean. All these industries working together, just ups the ability of innovation that much more, allowing us to expedite the process.

The NRC plays an important role in growing Canada’s blue economy, which is essential for planetary health, with a stable climate and economic prosperity in Canada and beyond. Right now, Canada has 1.5% of global GHG emissions. We are spending a lot of effort to advance clean tech, including clean energy. Canada has the world’s longest coastline and a very large ocean territory, which gives us a tremendous advantage globally for economic gain by focusing on ocean health.  The NRC works with industry, academia, non-profits, other government departments and other stakeholders to support the development of technologies that can be commercialized to truly have a positive impact for our planet and our economy.

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