Our favourite plankton rock star, Emily Hux, an incredibly populus and beautiful form of ocean life is in dire straits and we don’t mean enjoying a rock concert with Mark Knopfler, indeed just the opposite no more rock.
As bad as this seems we can help them!
A new scary study just out today in Geophysical Research Letters, GRL, shows a ubiquitous type of phytoplankton one of which is Emiliania huxleyi also known as E. Hux we like to call her Emily Hux — tiny form of ocean plant life, phyto-plankton that forms a rocky shell and are a vital foundation of the marine food web – appears to be suffering from the effects of ocean acidification caused by high and rising CO2.
Emily and her plankton rock star partner Pico so totally outclass Spongebob and have been crying out loud about their suffering for many years as this Songify video clip of their Plankton Manifesto demonstrates.
The recent study authors point out that the single-celled organism under their extensive study has been a type of “calcifying” plankton called a coccolithophore, which makes converts CO2 plus energy from sunlight to build its microscopic chalky suit of armor. The researchers used satellites tuned to observe the amount of calcium carbonate present in the surface of the Southern Ocean produced by Emiliania huxleyi, one of the most common species of coccolithophores in the region.
The coccolithophore E. hux is vitally important in the marine ecosystem and carbon cycle and is responsible for nearly half of all calcium carbonate production in the ocean, noted lead study author Natalie Freeman, a doctoral student in the CU-Boulder’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC). The new study indicates there has been a staggering 24 percent decline in the amount of calcium carbonate produced in large areas of the Southern Ocean over the past 17 years.
Comprehensive satellite measurements taken many times each day allowed for the determination of the calcification rate – the amount of calcium carbonate these organisms produced every day over the course of those 17 years.
Across the entire Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, there was a huge reduction in calcification rate during the summer months from 1998 to 2014. In addition, the researchers found a large reduction in calcification during that period in fringing regions of the Pacific and Indian sectors of the Southern Ocean.
“This is the first study to use satellites to measure the change in the amount of calcium carbonate and the calcification rates of the Southern Ocean,” said Freeman. “Both have decreased in large portions of the Southern Ocean basin, which is what one might expect considering the ongoing acidification of the world’s oceans.”
The new study also includes “sea truth data” from samples collected from many research ships that each year work in the oceans surrounding Antarctica to show that the observed decline in calcification occurs simultaneously with a loss in the amount of carbonate ions.
Carbonate ions, a key ingredient in coccolithophore shells, are being significantly depleted via ocean acidification that makes it energetically difficult for E. Hux and other marine life to precipitate their rocky shells as the world’s oceans absorb our atmospheric CO2.
NOAA scientists have estimated that global oceans have become up to 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Fossil Fuel Age and the Industrial Revolution. The two researchers, who also are affiliated with CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, used data collected by the SeaWiFS and MODIS satellite instruments.
“These results suggest that large-scale shifts in the ocean carbon cycle are already occurring and highlight organism and marine ecosystem vulnerability in a changing climate,” wrote the CU-Boulder researchers in GRL.
The Southern Ocean and the North Atlantic absorb more human sourced CO2 from the atmosphere than other oceans, and the Southern Ocean is particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because being so far from land it has a naturally low amount of carbonate.
“This study has implications for how sensitive these coccolithophores are to a changing climate, and how their calcification might influence the marine carbon cycle.”
Here is how we can save our plankton rock star
Sure reducing the amount of CO2 we pour into the world’s air and oceans will help. But the crisis Emily and other forms of ocean life face today is yesterdays CO2, the nearly trillion tonnes of CO2 we have already emitted during the past century. That yesterday’s CO2 is in the air and making its way into the oceans and will continue to do so for at least another 100 years regardless of whether we put one single more CO2 molecule into the air. Yesterday’s CO2 is a lethal dose of CO2 for ocean life as this paper clearly shows.
So don’t let anyone tell you that if we don’t give a second lethal dose of CO2 to Mother Earth everything will be just fine. That first lethal dose of CO2 is the one that is killing ocean life today.
The antidote to the CO2 now killing ocean life is to help ocean life. What that takes is a tiny amount of mineral dust that the oceans are most desperate for as that dust has more and more disappeared. It only takes an infinitesimal amount of dust to replenish and restore ocean pastures to their former state of health and abundance. In doing so the extra minerals, especially iron, greatly enhance photosynthesis and that provides an abundance of energy for the plankton to overcome the effects of their acidifying ocean.
The cost of the mineral dust needed to restore ocean pastures in incredibly small, just tens of thousands of dollars… not millions or billions. The price paid for just one orbiting satellite to study the death of the oceans can easily provide a financial trust large enough to replenish and restore the oceans for centuries to come.
And YES the damage we have wrought upon the oceans will require sustained caring good shepherding of our ocean pastures from now until the end of the fossil fuel age.
We have the knowledge and ability to make the decision – do we choose ocean life or ocean death. I for one choose life!