The Ocean Organ

The Ocean Organ is a visual representation of ocean acidification, which occurs when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, forming a weak acid. This collaboration brought artist and marine biologist Dr Kate Crawfurd together with Professor Jason Hall-Spencer to communicate the issue in a novel way.

Since the industrial revolution, the ocean has become approximately 30% more acidic due to fossil fuel emissions. Ocean acidification particularly affects sea creatures that create shells from calcium carbonate, such as sea urchins, coral, shellfish, and some plankton. It is vital that we reduce carbon emissions to prevent irreversible changes to the Earth’s systems. The Ocean Organ visualises the pH scale (level of acidity) of seawater using red cabbage as a pH indicator dye. 

“What we are trying to do through the Ocean Organ is to communicate science in quite a playful and positive way. We felt scale was important and the audience should be immersed in the experience. 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,” Kate said. 

The Making of The Ocean Organ

The Ocean Organ bubbled up from discussions about undersea volcanic vents studied by Professor Jason Hall-Spencer. The long tubes for the Organ were sourced from Plymouth Marine Lab and the National Marine Aquarium, which grow marine phytoplankton in the plastic tubing for research and fish food. Each tube of the Ocean Organ contains seawater of a particular pH based on the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at a moment in history or the projected future. However, the colourful spectrum of the whole pH scale requires very high carbon dioxide concentrations.

"The challenge we had was to calculate how much carbon dioxide could release without asphyxiating the audience, posing problems with risk assessments! Combined with the smell of rotting cabbage after a couple of days of testing, we had a re-think. Because this is art and not science, we decided to dye the water and bubble it with air: problems solved! Construction was an excellent team-building activity, only made possible by an enthusiastic team of marine biology students who also took turns demonstrating," Kate said.

The Ocean Organ was the centrepiece and motivation for the Eco-days exhibition at Ocean Studios, Royal William Yard. This showcased creative environmental groups in Plymouth, including Art and Energy, Precious Plastic, Clean Our Patch and others, reaching a diverse audience of artists, families and school and college groups. The Ocean Organ drew people in and the demonstrations brought it to life, as children joyfully blew bubbles into a cabbage which changed colour. Then they realised that they were affecting the environment with their own breath – playful, yet thought provoking. Through the Creative Associates collaboration, a unique communication tool has been created appealing to a diverse audience, including the scientific community, where it has been shared widely. The Ocean Organ will reappear at the University of Plymouth with some additional features which explore mitigation strategies and fossil fuels.   

Find out how research at the University of Plymouth is tackling this global carbon dioxide problem.

Dr Kate Crawfurd

Kate is both an artist and a scientist. She trained at RADA and has worked on theatrical sets for the Sydney Opera House, the National Theatre and in the West End before studying Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth, graduating in 2001. She subsequently completed a PhD on the effects of rising carbon dioxide on marine phytoplankton and now combines her passion for art and the ocean through a number of eye-catching projects. She has a talent for painting large-scale murals and enjoys engaging schools in science in new and creative ways.

"Creative engagement in science and the environment is so exciting and I am really pleased to be working in this field."

View more of Kate's work

Kate at the Eco-days exhibition at Ocean Studios, Royal William Yard

Kate at the Eco-days exhibition at Ocean Studios, Royal William Yard

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.

Find out more about the initiatives

Image: Carey Marks/Creative Associates