Is it true… can we grow new real estate and take a bite out of greenhouse gas emissions in the process?
Who would challenge the obvious truth, the basic statement that “they aren’t making more real estate”? It’s clear in the general public’s mind that real estate is finite. Right? But is it? Since 2005, Floating Island International has “launched” 10,000 pieces of real estate around the planet - some large, some small, all of them representing new “land” that wasn’t there before. And these new islands actually grow over time, and as they grow, they fight climate change.
We actually measured this way back in the early days. We weighed a dry island prior to launch, then put it in a typical, nutrient-rich irrigation pond, and watched it grow for eleven weeks during the height of our Montana growing season. Then the island was lifted out of the pond with a snowmobile lift and allowed to air dry; then it was cored, oven dried, measured, and analyzed. The island had increased in dry weight mass by 72%. Plant humus had accumulated on top, and biofilm/periphyton, the microbial community, had grown internally.
The typical growing season here in Montana is around 115 days between frosts - at least, it was before climate change. That’s roughly 16 weeks. This means that the BioHaven was on pace to more than double in dry-weight mass over just one growing season.
Why is TSS important? Is it good or bad? What is the connection with climate change?
TSS is the “dust” of water. It contains the nutrients and the vast range of pollution parameters, including PFAS, microplastics, heavy metals and orthophosphate and nitrates that we incessantly read about, and that many of us work with. TSS is the broad category of this pollution that we fight. And here BioHavens are harvesting it, cycling it into island mass, as in “growing new real estate.”
When freshwater no longer has the capacity to cycle these nutrients into and through its food web, they stack up on the bottom of the water body. As they are digested by ever-present microbes, oxygen is used up. Once the oxygen is gone from this bottom layer, anaerobic microbes are the only life form left to function in such a setting. And as they function, they generate methane.
While attending college, actually the University of Wisconsin, Madison, my summers were busy. I launched and ran a recreation tabloid, the Outdoor News of Marinette County. This was in northern Wisconsin, up against the Iron Mountain region of UP Michigan, where outdoor recreation, primarily fishing, hunting, skiing and snowmobiling happen. In between publishing the tabloid, I guided fishermen and fisherwomen. I put them in front of the premier, apex predator fish in North America, the muskellunge, and, along the way, in front of smallmouth and largemouth bass, walleye, and a countless mix of panfish.
The pristine water in this part of the world does contain some TSS, but mostly of natural origin. It contains iron, and other constituents that makes it somewhat acidic. But there’s minimal agricultural pollution in these piney woods, so the fertilizer form of phosphorus overloading, the orthophosphate, just isn’t happening. Harmful algae blooms haven’t got there yet. Go south a hundred miles and this changes radically. But for now, other than nutrients connected with dysfunctional septic systems and natural mineral leaching, the water is only slightly influenced by concentrated nutrients. And this is the home of apex, world record game fish, as in the 69 lb. 15 oz. world record muskellunge.
The TSS is minimal, so water clarity is good. There are lakes where you can watch fish thirty feet below, cruising along the bottom. There are lakes where you can cup your hand and drink with no fear. Well, maybe a bit of fear associated with beaver-fever.
These relatively healthy lakes emit carbon dioxide as nutrients cycle effectively through their capacious food webs. They don’t emit the massive volumes of methane connected with eutrophic and hyper-eutrophic nutrient-impaired water associated with human activity, farming, wastewater and stormwater. The lakes are beautiful, productive and represent a model for us to aspire to. But today, with the combination of nutrient loading and climate change, many of our lakes, especially in agricultural settings, especially large deep lakes, have become methane factories.
BioHavens harvest TSS. They do this by engendering and propagating biofilm, which is sticky, and attracts TSS like fly-paper. This process is called nature’s wetland effect. It is how nature fixes water. We humans have been dismantling natural wetlands for the last century, in our sublime ignorance. Now BioHavens are aiding the process of recovery. We have the ability to harvest TSS and to maintain oxygen in lakes from top to bottom to prevent massive methane emissions. And note, per the EPA, when balanced against its residence time in the atmosphere, methane is 25 times more impactful than carbon dioxide.
What makes us so confident that we are in the right track?
Well, fish are a top-level marker species. When they do well, managed with a low carbon footprint (in other words, without feed or other carbon or nutrient input), then water does well. Fish are our “canary in the coal mine”. When we get it wrong or are on a misguided path, then fish inform us. They die, they go away, when water becomes dysfunctional. Likewise, they are the measure of our success, as we transition to sustainable practice.
When we provide surface area and circulation, we provide fish with healthy water, and fish thrive at levels that are startling. For example, our research lake here at Shepherd is undoubtedly the most productive wild fishery in Montana. It has the capacity to handle surges of pollutants, all of which fit into the TSS category, and cycle them into fish and other desirable biota. Think clouds of damsel flies, or huge concentrations of forage fish like the fathead minnow. Think crawfish and bivalves, and even freshwater sponge. The result is clear water, huge fishery abundance, and beautiful floating islands. In fact, floating islands are a linchpin, as they harvest TSS. They also form concentrated wetlands. They provide rich riparian edge habitat, a habitat that is particularly challenging and expensive to recreate without BioHavens to help.
Today’s nutrient-impaired lakes can transition into super-productive fisheries with pristine water clarity. Water that is beautiful and safe, like the water in Northern Wisconsin when I guided there. Impaired, polluted, TSS-laden water can be restored. We call this Transition Water. We’re engaged in this process at Fish Fry Lake (our research lake at Shepherd) and anywhere BioHaven “real estate” has been installed.
When snorkeling in Fish Fry Lake, it’s not unusual to be trailed by hundreds of panfish, the bluegill, the red-ear and green sunfish, the young bass. The lake is a pleasure to snorkel, and a flat-out wonder to fish.
We harvest some of these fish to sustain the population and the fishery itself as part of our stewardship approach. Biasing towards fish and other desirable life forms, and away from monocultures of cyanobacteria or noxious plants, this conscious harvest represents another form of nutrient cycling. We slot-limit the fish, keeping the smaller age classes that are barely large enough to eat, releasing the larger and incredibly productive spawners. This has resulted in an exceptional fishery. This short video gives a glimpse into the excitement of catching bass on Fish Fry Lake!
Why is this important as we face climate disruption and a health emergency? We are, hopefully, coming out of a viral pandemic. Maybe we will have learned from it. My sense is that human investment in wise stewardship will be sufficient to allow us the time to evolve. The time to adjust and to design around sustainable practices, as we advance into the unknown.
Effective climate action is both possible and mandatory. As we grow islands, we grow fish and other appropriate biota instead of harmful algae blooms. Today we can farm on BioHavens. We can grow landscape trees and agricultural produce on BioHavens. We can support commercial photovoltaic panels on BioHavens, thus generating alternative energy sufficient to pay for large systems. In the process, as a byproduct, we fix the water upon which this happens.
Methane coming off nutrient-impaired fresh water, roughly half of fresh water across the United States, represents as much as 20% equivalent of climate-impacting greenhouse gas caused by fossil-fuel combustion. And water is a low hanging fruit. We know how to fix it and it’s not hard. Best of all, the by-product of this form of climate action will be pristine water.
Between us, we can find real answers, solutions, that lead us forward towards a bright future. Apathy is a nonstarter. As we explore our options, and experiment with systems that can transition water to health, we are confident that human endeavor is both resilient and aggressive. Maybe it’s time to get serious about growing new real estate, perhaps even a new country. Based on the gyres of TSS/microplastics that occur in the Pacific, there’s plenty of carbon to work with! Locate just 201 miles offshore from a current national border, and the United Nations may have a new member applicant!
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