Ocean Organ - Creative Associates 2021 project

The damage being caused to our ocean by human activity and climate change has never been more apparent. However, the precise effects of ocean acidification – and how it might impact the marine environment now and in the future – are sometimes difficult to convey.

A new collaboration between world-leading researchers from the University of Plymouth, and Plymouth-based artist and scientist Dr Kate Crawfurd, aims to overcome that in a striking but playful and innovative way.

The Ocean Organ illustrates, using installation and theatre, the many ways in which the climate emergency is affecting the ocean’s ability to act as sources and sinks for carbon dioxide.

Designed to resemble a cathedral organ, it consists of a series of pipes bubbling with a spectrum of coloured liquids based on the chemical effects of CO₂ on the ocean.

The colour of seawater within the pipes can be altered depending on the differing levels of CO₂ present, using red cabbage as a natural pH indicator dye that reacts quickly to small pH changes.

The installation is accompanied by examples of seashells and other calcified marine life to demonstrate the effects of ocean acidification on species vital to the health of the entire planet.

It also examines some of the solutions that could reduce rising carbon dioxide levels such as floating wind farms, seaweed farming and the recovery of coastal wetlands.

The project is partly inspired by the research of Jason Hall-Spencer, Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth, and one of the world’s leading experts on ocean acidification and warming.

He led the first study to show the ecosystem effects of long-term ocean acidification and, with colleagues across the world, has demonstrated that it could have serious consequences for marine life and for the millions of people globally whose lives depend on coastal protection, fisheries and aquaculture.

Professor Hall-Spencer said:

“This exhibit shows how the ocean changes chemically when you add carbon dioxide. That is what we are doing by continuing to use fossil fuels as a third of the CO₂ that we put into the atmosphere ends up in sea water.
"Our research has shown just some of the effects it can have with calcified marine life – such as sea urchins and scallops – being heavily damaged as the ocean becomes more corrosive. But by working together we can make positive changes for the future of our planet, and combining art and science in this way is a great way to showcase that.”

Jason Hall-Spencer
Professor of Marine Biology Jason Hall-Spencer

Dr Crawfurd worked on theatrical sets for the Sydney Opera House, the National Theatre and in the West End before studying Marine Biology at the University, graduating in 2001.

She subsequently completed a PhD on the effects of rising CO₂ and phytoplankton and now combines her passion for art and the ocean through a number of eye-catching projects. She added:

“What we are trying to do through the Ocean Organ is to communicate science in quite a playful and positive way. There is no doubt the message can be quite heavy, in terms of the effect our actions are having on the environment. But in order to inspire change, we need to engage people of all ages and make them not only appreciate the scale of the problem but that they can also be part of the solution.”

Dr Kate Crawfurd with the Ocean Organ
Dr Kate Crawfurd with the Ocean Organ

It is hoped to showcase the Ocean Organ publicly later this year at a variety of events in Plymouth and further afield, subject to COVID-19 restrictions.

The collaboration was facilitated as part of the Creative Associates initiative, overseen by the University’s Sustainable Earth Institute and supported by Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF). The initiative is designed to uncover novel and innovative ways of communicating research to a public audience.

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Tackling the global ocean acidification problem

Our world-leading experts increase understanding of how climate change has forced marine organisms to adapt, working with policymakers and stakeholders to minimise and address the impacts of ocean acidification.
CO2 vents

Creative Associates

The Sustainable Earth Institute's Creative Associates projects aim to explore novel and innovative ways of communicating research and develop a portfolio of case studies of the different creative approaches possible.
Patient at Krygyz Research Institute of Balneology and
Recovery Treatment. Interestingly, it doesn’t take much to move people from the
formal expressions in portraits into a much warmer mood. Image: Carey Marks
Thermal image of Plymouth taken by Matthew Fox, Environmental Building Group - Special Commendation in Visions of Sustainability 2015

Sustainable Earth Institute

The Sustainable Earth Institute is about promoting a new way of thinking about the future of our world.
We bring researchers together with businesses, community groups and individuals to develop cutting-edge research and innovative approaches that build resilience to global challenges. 
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