When I talk with people about our oceans health, there is generally a sense of; “Where do we start?!”
You can understand this when you think of the number of concerns our oceans face: over fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, warming and acidification, being the most far-reaching.
It is a daunting situation we find ourselves in, but I feel it is inherently manageable.
This is not to dispel the fact that the ocean needs our help, it does; the number of problems it faces, much like a person suffering multiple illnesses, may cause irreversible effects, but if some were treated, it is very likely a full recovery would be made. One of the things I have come to realise, thinking like a biomimic, is that nature, on the whole, is incredibly resilient.
With that in mind, how can we be resilient like the oceans, adapt and in doing so give back to the marine environment to secure its future?
You’ll be pleased to hear I firmly believe there is a way…
In an earlier blog I looked at species in isolation and described a number of adaptations we’ve learnt from that are now solving many human challenges. But, the real potential of biomimicry isn’t in the isolated cases it is the broader understanding of an eco-system that makes biomimicry thinking so inspiring.
Previously I wrote about blue mussels; a fascinating bivalve that adapt to their harsh coastal environment. But what I didn’t say is what their adaptations do in return…
In the Wadden Sea, an area of 10,000km2 bordering Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, mussels not only survive but also thrive in vast beds or colonies;
These beds are so extensive they create another habitat for other species; in fact the mussel beds alone support over 100 species living on, in or between them;
As each mussel filters 2-3 litres of seawater per hour, it is estimated that the mussel colony alone filters the entire Wadden Sea in just a matter of days!!
But it doesn’t stop there, if we widened our gaze even more, we would discover a network of species interacting to survive in and enhance the Wadden Sea’s productivity.
Through biomimicry, we could mimic the Wadden Sea to impact marine pollution through mass filtration and species decline by creating habitats!
This broader picture of a species in its greater environment begins to give us an understanding of the relationships at play; in biology this is called ecology, in biomimicry we call this ‘systems thinking’. As we build species into our picture we start to paint in even more inspiring one: we refer to this as building a ‘genius of place’.
A Genius of Place is where I feel we can have a major impact on addressing our oceans ill health; the closer we mimic it the less we will take and the more we will give back.
So how can we (bio)mimic nature to this level?
To break it down, (bio)mimicking nature can be structured at 3 identifiable levels: form, process, and system. We’ve talked about two of them already; Sharklet Technologies mimic the form of shark’s skin and by mimicking the blue mussels chemical process we’re replacing toxic glues. As you move from one to the other your understanding of the species increases and the resultant biomimicry deepens, the deeper you go the greater the impact. Here are some new examples to articulate what I mean:
Form: the most foundational level of biomimicry where we mimic a structure or shape. E.g. humpback wales have bumps on the leading edge of their fins called tubercles which give them an ability to quickly change direction while feeding; these have been mimicked by WhalePower in order to improve wind turbine blade efficiency by reducing drag by 32% and increasing lift by 8%!humpback whale shot
Process: where the benefits of form are amplified by copying the green chemistry that produced them. E.g. marine invertebrates like shrimp grow an exoskeleton made from chitin that is biodegradable, strong and can communicate with colour. The Wyss Institute has used the same molecular recipe (with help from spiders silk) to produce Shrilk: a thin, clear, flexible, biodegradable replacement for plastic, as strong as aluminium at half the weight.
System: mimicking the network of species in an ecosystem to address all inputs and outputs in a human system. E.g. coral reefs support an estimated 9 million species. They thrive because of their individual adaptations and the relationships they form with one another in a closed-loop. Vincent Callebaut Architecture is rethinking not just the structures but also the infrastructures of built environments modelled on the complex closed loop systems of coral reefs where at least 50% of the energy comes from the buildings themself.
By breaking the levels of biomimicry down like this it highlights;
Nature inspired design can result in unexpected and impressive solutions to our challenges, but in isolation they fall short of tackling the bigger issues we face.
If we start putting all these pieces of nature inspired innovation together; structures, shapes, chemical process, into a system we could start to generate human environments that not only support the surrounding environments in which we live, such as our oceans, but enhance them as well.
So how could this make the future of our oceans brighter?
Taking what we have talked about so far, imagine if buildings could gather their own energy, clean their own water and cycle their own recourses just like a coral. Combine these coral-like buildings to develop a self-sufficient city that operates like a whole coral reef! Then our relationship with the oceans would be as it should be:
Habitat destruction will reverse to habitat creation, as, like the blue mussel, our cities become habitats.
Pollution will reduce as biodegradable materials like shrilk increase and need for toxic chemicals would slowly disappear by using products like sharklet.
Ocean warming and acidification would slow as renewable energy improves by companies like WhalePower and therefore increased, carbon dioxide dissolving into our oceans (elevating acidity) would decline as we produced less and companies like Calera find way to use carbon dioxide to build our cities.
Over fishing would slow with habitat construction and conservation of species and their habitats would become an investment for every developing industry and profession as the secrets to solving their problems would be conserved in those natural models.
By beginning to blur what we think of as human and natural we stand a much better chance of being here for the long haul. In biomimicry we refer to this ultimate goal as ‘creating conditions conducive to life’; this is what each organism does (without thinking) everyday within the eco-system that they live. If they didn’t, it is likely the system would slowly push them out; our aim should be to create a situation where our oceans attempt to pull us in not push us out!
Humanity is a young species with a lot to learn. Biomimicry’s in exciting awe-inspiring approach to how we could design our future from those lessons and I’m pleased that I’m part of it! The network of biomimics across the globe is growing like a thriving organism and I encourage anyone with a curious mind and interest in the big picture, to join.
It is exciting and comforting to know that even if humans lose sight for a while on where all our abilities should take us, the rest of nature is there to show us how to stay on track.
So the next time you come to stumbling block, pause and think…
“What would nature do here…?”
Read up on our past blogs discussing Biomimicry here
Our Biomimicry blogs are written by and in partnership with Biomimic William Lawson
Will currently plays a number of roles; assistant producer for Plimsoll Productions and researcher the BBC NHU (Natural History Unit), Local Naturalist and Advisory Group member for Biomimicry UK and BiomimicrySA (South Africa), and advisory group member for CoalitionWILD.
Wills passion and enthusiasm for the outdoors has spurred him on to gain his Dive Master and Yachtmaster qualifications at Sea and FGASA (Field Guide Association of Southern Africa) Assessor Qualification, on land; working in the past as guide and instructor for Africa’s longest standing Game Ranger training organisation; Ecotraining.
Until 2011 Will ran the safari department as Head Ranger at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve where he began guiding in 2006. Will’s enthusiasm for African wildlife was inspired by natural history documentaries and so it seemed fitting that he should now use his knowledge to make wildlife television productions. He has recently completed six months filming in Antarctica.
Black Cat cruises warmly welcome collaborations and encourage you to get in touch if you feel you have a story to share that can empower, educate and inspire people about our oceans and its inhabitants….