Friday, August 6, 2010

Phytoplankton and You

Humpback Whales Bubblenetting- click to enlarge
A new study in Nature, reveals for the first time that microscopic marine algae known as "phytoplankton" have been declining globally over the 20th century.  They found a decline of almost 1% per year.  Why should we, far away in the Ozarks, care?
How about breathing?  Phytoplankton is tiny but its mass absorbs CO2.  Of more immediate importance to mammals, it produces half the oxygen we breathe.  
"Phytoplankton forms the basis of the marine food chain and sustains diverse assemblages of species ranging from tiny zooplankton to large marine mammals, seabirds, and fish." says lead author Daniel Boyce.  "Phytoplankton is the fuel on which marine ecosystems run.  A decline of phytoplankton affects everything up the food chain, including humans."

This trend is particularly well documented in the Northern Hemisphere after 1950, and would translate into a decline of approximately 40% since 1950. The scientists found that long-term phytoplankton declines were negatively correlated with rising sea surface temperatures and changing oceanographic conditions.
A more detailed explanation of these findings can be found in Science Daily.

The impact of phytoplankton decline on the planet is hard to predict but I would hazard a guess that it ain't good.  As the base of the oceanic food chain it is bound to affect fish and mammals such as whales as well as all species in between.  There will likely be far more losers than winners. Those of us at the top of the food chain should be concerned.
Mean global temperature anomalies- 1880-2001 NOAA
Baby Fish don't like CO2
 There is still a lot of healthy debate about the role of human activity in producing global warming.  Either way, there are two facts that can no longer be ignored.

  1. There is a global warming trend over the last 50+ years.  
  2. From Wall Street Journal- click to enlarge
  3. There is an increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  
In 2005, global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 35% higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution.  There are two main engines that remove carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen- trees and phytoplankton.  We now have evidence that both are declining.  You do the math.

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