The Little Plant that Could


How Exploration for Oil Beneath the Arctic Revealed a Surprising Key to Our Climate Past, and Possibly, the Future

At the Intersection of hydrocarbon research and climate science, EGI and Dr. Jonathan Bujak consider the role of geoscience and biological systems in energy research and carbon sequestration.

Azolla grows free-floating on freshwater. Image by Bob Winters (via the Ecolink website and Azolla Foundation).

When public interest and industry-related science intersect, the result is sometimes controversial. However, the principles that are applied to industry-driven research can be similarly applied in seeking innovative solutions to the problems we face in an industrialized world. In other words, science for industry can also be science for the good. A dramatic example of this comes in the form of a tiny, not-so-dramatic looking plant whose origins are millions of years old.

Dr. Jonathan Bujak is a paleontologist and EGI Affiliate Scientist at the forefront of dynamic and exciting research into the potential for the Azolla fern to have a big impact on issues ranging from man-made climate change to agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and even space exploration. He operates the Azolla Foundation and Azolla BioSystems, focusing on the plant’s unique characteristics and potential. In his capacity as EGI Affiliate Scientist, Dr. Bujak is working with EGI researchers Sudeep Kanungo, David Thul, and Eiichi Setoyama on two of our newest research initiatives: EGI Oceans – Evaluation of the Stratigraphy & Petroleum Systems of the Central & North Atlantic Ocean and EGI Oceans – Regional Assessment of Deepwater Petroleum Systems of the South Atlantic.

Supplying Demand and Safeguarding Businesses

With international energy prices depressed for more than a year and forecasts signaling low to relatively-low prices enduring through 2016, companies in the energy industry are also looking for innovative ways to grow their business and support the energy requirements of a robust economy. Additionally, regulatory changes aimed at addressing climate change and public health are shifting perspectives on how societies find, generate, and use energy resources.

Along with Azolla’s unsurpassed capacity to sequester large amounts of CO2 in the battle against climate change, the unassuming plant also holds significant potential as a biofuelAzolla plants that live today are a significant biofuel source. Azolla BioSystems Ltd. has developed various techniques to convert Azolla’s biomass into biofuel, including methods to maximize its bio-oil potential. The enriched-nitrogen water that is a bi-product of Azolla’s sequestration is also used to fertilize algal growth, making the production of algal biofuel more efficient and cost-effective. This synergy provides a combined Azolla-Algal Biofuel (AAB) product that can be available locally anywhere in the world, without the need for long-distance transportation inherent in today’s energy infrastructure.

The Benefits of Collaboration

Dr. Bujak has been an EGI Affiliate Scientist for over a decade, during which time he has contributed to research in biostratigraphy and paleoceanography in the North Atlantic and North Pacific-Bering Sea region.

In addition to his collaboration on EGI’s current research on Central & North Atlantic Petroleum Systems and South Atlantic Petroleum Systems, EGI is also actively investigating opportunities for further research into Azolla’s contribution as a carbon sink and as a potential biofuel.

EGI’s robust collaborative relationships with premier researchers and institutions around the world have secured significant return on investment for our Corporate Associate members, as well as unparalleled access to academic institutions and governments globally. We are encouraged by the innovative work and substantial research produced thus far on Azolla’s unique potential and characteristics. We look forward to continuing our joint discussions on this fascinating and important area of research.

Weathering Changes in the Global Environment

Today, scientists and governments globally are considering the impacts of a rapidly changing global environment even as the demand for energy, land, and resources continues to grow. Accordingly, efforts to secure energy resources for citizens and economies worldwide are increasingly focusing on ways to not only find and produce energy, but to ensure that strong growth and secure societies include healthy environments and responsible, efficient use of shared resources.

Could this unique plant help us weather the perfect storm that threatens to destabilize economies, natural environments, and communities around the world?

Azolla’s sequestration potential is significantly higher than that of other plants and close to the maximum theoretical value for algae.

Dr. Bujak and his daughter Alexandra Bujak are confident it can play in important role.  Together they have designed a natural biological system called the Azolla BioSystem to make use of the plant’s remarkable properties. The system sequesters and converts large quantities of atmospheric CO2 into the free-floating freshwater fern Azolla and various algae without the need for arable land or nitrogen fertilizers. Selected amounts of CO2 are permanently removed from the biological-atmospheric cycle as solid carbon products and the remaining biomass provides local renewable biofuel, biofertilizer, livestock feed, and food.

Likewise, the biological system Dr. Bujak and Alexandra have designed helps to resolve a key problem that plagued the 2009 Copenhagen and 2013 Doha Summits on Climate Change: Why should developing countries forego their opportunities in the 21st Century in order to help resolve the problems created by developed countries in the 20th? But innovative solutions like carbon sequestration, biofuels, and fertilizer, food, and livestock feed can help turn impact into opportunity.

The Azolla BiosystemTM

Background – the Azolla Story

The same underlying science that drives core research in energy exploration is applicable to the study of wide ranging issues for society, such as climate and ocean change, biodiversity and origins of life, the Earth in motion, and the Earth’s structure and dynamics in relation to its surface environment (European Consortium for Ocean Research and Drilling – ECORD).

One of the most significant breakthroughs for Azolla research came in 2004 when a polar drilling expedition recovered cores containing thousands of layers of extremely well preserved Azolla fern remains from deep beneath the Arctic Ocean. Further research revealed that the tiny but remarkable plant had a huge impact on Earth’s climate around 50 million years ago, during a period in which the planet was experiencing a “greenhouse climate” in which turtles and alligators inhabited lush forests a few hundred miles from the North Pole and temperatures and CO2 levels were far greater than today.

The 50 million year old core filled with brown layers of Azolla remains.

Fossil Azolla dated between 50.5 and 55.5 Ma (million years) from the Green River Formation of Garfield County, Colorado, which are similar in age to Azolla in the ACEX core. The floating leaves and tendrils are identical to those of modern Azolla.

The drilling expedition, known as ACEX (Arctic Coring Expedition), drilled a scientific borehole in the Lomonsov Ridge close to the North Pole, beneath the Arctic Ocean seabed. The cores recovered from ACEX revealed that sediments of 50 million years old were comprised nearly entirely of Azolla. The time period is now known as ‘the Azolla Interval.’

Around 50 million years ago Azolla repeatedly spread across the Arctic Ocean surface, sequestering enormous quantities of atmospheric CO2, and triggering a precipitous decline in CO2 levels, leading to rapid drops in temperature and a shift in the global climate from a greenhouse climate to an “icehouse climate.” This abrupt change in temperature and carbon dioxide levels led, eventually, to the permanent snow and ice conditions at the Earth’s poles that persist today.

After this discovery in 2004, ACEX scientists still grappled with a problematic question: If Azolla is a freshwater plant, how did it survive– and ultimately proliferate to the point of having a global impact on the climate– in the salt water environment of the Artic Ocean?  Their theory, proposed and tested across several studies over a decade, posits that just over 50 million years ago the Artic Ocean had but one marine outlet, the Turgay Straight (also called the Turgai Sea), which, around that time closed off, locking up the Artic Ocean into a body with conditions similar to today’s Black Sea.

Runoff from numerous river systems flowed into the Artic Ocean, creating a freshwater plume– a shallow layer of water just deep enough for the freshwater Azolla to spread across the surface forming mats of vegetation during successive episodes called the ‘Arctic Azolla Event.’  The Arctic Azolla Event lasted for about a million years, beginning in the Early Eocene.

These massive “mats” of Azolla plants sequestered large amounts of CO2 which was converted to Azolla biomass, eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean as the plants died. The dead plants were deposited on the ocean floor as sediments, which now form a layer beneath the Lomonosov Ridge in the Artic Ocean. Since this ‘choked off’ Ocean (with conditions resembling today’s Black Sea) experienced constrained water circulation, an oxygen-poor, anoxic layer emerged on the ocean floor.  This environment lacked bottom-dwelling organisms to consume the plants and thus recycle the remains back up into shallow water. The process was repeated over and over again, depositing over time the laminated layers of the Azolla Interval.

ACEX Lomonosov Ridge drilling location.

Today’s Black Sea bears a striking resemblance to the Arctic Ocean of 50 million years ago.

The CO2 sequestered in these Azolla sedimentary layers precipitated the dramatic fall in atmospheric CO2 that led to cooling temperatures globally and a shift toward today’s “icehouse” climate. As further changes, such as mountain uplift and changes in ocean currents, further reduced CO2 levels in the atmosphere, temperatures continued to fall, particularly around the poles, eventually giving rise to current icehouse conditions with interglacial and glacial cycles.

A Perfect Marriage

But how did such a tiny plant trigger such monumental changes in global environments? The answer lies in a unique symbiosis and co-evolution.

Azolla was able to accomplish this because of its symbiosis with the cyanobacterium Anabaena. Azolla’s leaf vacuoles provide an ideal home for Anabaena, which draws down atmospheric nitrogen. This fertilizes Azolla, making it one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, doubling its biomass every two to three days even though its only requirements are air, light, freshwater, and small quantities of nutrients. AzollaAnabaena is the only known symbiosis in which the cyanobacterial partner is maintained throughout the plant’s reproductive cycle, resulting in their co-evolution and the extreme efficiency of the AzollaAnabaena superorganism. This amazing plant, the AzollaAnabaena symbiosis, and its effect on CO2 and climate, is presented in detail in previously published articles in GEO ExPro Vol. 4, No. 4 (2007) and Geoscientist (June 2014).

About the Authors

Dr. Jonathan Bujak has more than 40 years experience studying modern and fossil pollen, spores, and dinoflagellates (palynomorphs) within a geological, oceanographic, and climatic context. He has studied hundreds of wells and sections from the northeast Atlantic region and is the designated expert for North Sea and Faroe-Shetland equity disputes. Dr. Bujak was involved with the only two expeditions to core sediments beneath the North Pole – the 1979 shallow Lomonosov Ridge Expedition (LOREX) and the 2004 Arctic Coring Expedition (ACEX), which discovered the Eocene ‘Arctic Azolla Event.’

His work is widely featured in geoscience publications, television, and radio, including Nature (2006), GEO ExPro Magazine (2007, 2013), and Geoscientist Magazine (2014), as well as BBC Radio 4’s ‘Inside Science’ and Washington’s ‘Climate Science,’ which was reprinted in Scientific American.

He co-founded the Azolla Foundation in 2011 with his daughter Alexandra.

Alexandra Bujak is an environmental scientist specializing in modern Azolla’s multiple uses. Alexandra earned an Honors B.Sc. degree in Environmental Science from Manchester University where she conducted experiments to maximize Azolla‘s CO2 sequestration. She co-founded the Azolla Foundation with her father in 2011. Alexandra is co-author to the June 2014 article “The Artic Azolla Event” published in the Geological Society of London’s Geoscientist Online and is co-author of the forthcoming book The Azolla Story with Jonathan, to be published in 2016.