A new paper showing 50 year ten fold increase in one ocean pasture phytoplankton Cocolithophores portends ocean ecology crisis
Trouble with the world’s most important ‘canary in our fossil CO2 coal mine.’
Authors of the report in the Journal Science on ocean ecology state is that there has been a widespread increase in the sampled population of these Cocolithophores in the North Atlantic from 2% to more than 20%, a ten fold increase in the 50 years of data collected by the Sir Allister Hardy Foundation (SAFOS). SAFOS has been making and deploying very simple plankton collectors from merchant ships since the device was invented by Sir Allister in the 1930’s. The authors went a step further to look for correlations in this dramatic shift in ocean ecology with CO2 levels which we all know have been increasing dramatically during that same course of time. Curiously they neglected to offer a matching and perhaps better correlation with the rise of cocoliths and collapse of large fish populations.
Keep in mind correlation does not prove causation so this report like so many does not prove CO2 is causing an increase in this particular plankton group, indeed only a few species of this group exist.
I’ve long been a real fan of the cocolithophores as they are photogenic both under the microscope and from space. One of my closest confidants in my world of plankton ecology has been this fellow…. Pico
It’s important when working in the field of ecology to know as well as possible the nature of the life one is studying. I have spent a lifetime doing, mostly in the field, forests, and seas with as little time behind a desk and instrument screen as possible, so these are some words of wisdom that are as close to nature as it gets.
The Nature and Natural History of Cocolithophores
Pico and his kin are plants but they are a special form of algae, phytoplankton, they are not your soft bodied slimy types they are armoured plants. They have evolved to grow hard shells of calcium carbonate, the same stuff of oyster shells that they surround their soft body parts within. The do this as in their world of plankton blooms the critters, zooplankton, eat the soft food first and eschew rather than chew on the rock hard Pico and his kin until the easy food is mostly gone.
The hard shelled Cocolith’s like Pico have advantages and costs to bearing a resemblance to a main battle tank. On one hand the armour protects them by making them less desired amongst the legion of soft body phytoplankton in the blooms they inhabit. That’s good for Pico but it comes at a very high price, it takes a lot of energy, photosynthesis, to make the armour and worse that armour is heavy as a rock, indeed it is rock, and it takes a great deal of photosynthesis energy to keep the rock floating.
Typically Pico has a rather predictable life cycle which is gives them a bit of time to grow and reproduce before the armour they constantly are adding to becomes too heavy for them to remain drifting near the surface of the ocean where the sunlight they must have floods the sea. The older and heavier their armour becomes the deeper they sink until one day their combined age and weight are simply too much and they sink like the living stone that are into the abyss.
Pico and his kin have always been a big part of life on this planet. While they may seem new to you perhaps you have seen them before. As in the White Cliffs of Dover or perhaps for on your classrooms Chalk Board, as their ancient deposits are what we commonly know as chalk.
So when the report on the SAFOS data was published recently it was with great interest I read of the work. Alas the internet news is awash with spin doctored stories about this new report. Headlines are proclaiming some variant on “CO2 Increasing Ocean Plankton.” OK yes it looks like some correlation that some plankton are increasing with CO2 but that’s hardly the vitally important part of this report. The real news ought to be crying the alarm that says “Radical shift of ocean pasture ecology correlated to high and rising CO2.”
Some context to the dilemma of the ocean pastures
There is presently another important paper just published about ocean plankton under the headline – “Global warming disaster could suffocate life on planet Earth.” In this report a study by the University of Leicester’s Department of Mathematics, has shown in mathematical models that an increase in the water temperature of the world’s oceans of around six degrees Celsius — which some scientists predict could occur as soon as 2100 — could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis.
Lead researcher Petrovskii explained: “Global warming has been a focus of attention of science and politics for about two decades now. A lot has been said about its expected disastrous consequences; perhaps the most notorious is the global flooding that may result from melting of Antarctic ice if the warming exceeds a few degrees compared to the pre-industrial level. However, it now appears that this is probably not the biggest danger that the warming can cause to the humanity. About two-thirds of the planet’s total atmospheric oxygen is produced by ocean phytoplankton – and therefore cessation would result in the depletion of atmospheric oxygen on a global scale. This would likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans.”
That the cocoliths are showing this is perfectly understandable as they more than any other form of life on this planet are the first and most important ‘canaries in our collective coal mine.’
The cocoliths live lives in such delicate balance with CO2 levels in air and oceans such that their 50 year rise in lock step with our fossil CO2 global geoengineering program is truly alarming. Since these stony plants are by far the least favoured form of ocean pasture plant life this report if made in land based pasture science communities would be tantamount to terrestrial headlines reading…
“Global cattle and sheep pastures see a ten fold increase in toxic plant life, livestock production around the world in collapse.”
If you read the headline above about the world’s pastures you would be correct in expecting to be reading about a global effort to intervene and spare the natural and human world from such a disaster.
If you are a planktonic cocolithophore this news doesn’t portend immediate death and destruction it does however surely suggest that massive changes to the world’s most vital ecosystem, that blue part that covers 72% of this planet and sustains 99% of all life on the planet is well underway. We humans have scant knowledge of what this change might lead to but for certain it is a massive change the likes of which have been recorded over eons of geologic time and which have always been associated with characteristics known to us a ‘mass extinctions.”
The trouble as seen in this report covering 50 years doesn’t speak to the trouble that will come from the CO2 that we will emit tomorrow it comes from the trouble of all of our ‘yesterdays’ CO2, the nearly trillion tonnes we have emitted over the past century in our fossil fuel gluttony and emission of CO2. While ‘tomorrows CO2’ will certainly add to the problem it’s ‘yesterdays CO2’ we must first and foremost address or not at our collective peril.
There is the means to help with ‘yesterday’s CO2’ overdose and it lies as well within the ocean pastures. As our trillion tonne overdose of CO2 has been emitted into the air it has exerted a two fold change to plant life on Earth. First literally on earth our CO2 has been promoting the growth of terrestrial plant life. While many might think that we live on a planet of forests in fact we live on a planet of grass as vastly larger areas of the planet are grasslands than are forest. Those grasslands of pastures on land have evolved in an intimate dependent relationship with their kin the phytoplankton/grass of ocean pastures. Our high and rising CO2 is growing more grass on land in a powerful global greening.
More grass growing means less dust blowing.
Ocean pastures depend on a vital mineral rain of dust that blows in the wind. That dust is dramatically less today as our CO2 grows more grass ground cover. This has produced a terrible drought of dust that has been sustaining the vast majority of ocean pasture plant life. And completely as expected the massive decline of the primary group of ocean pasture plant life is accompanied by this now reported steady rise in cocoliths, a far less desirable species of ocean pasture plants.
WE CAN DO SOMETHING TO HELP
It is our CO2 that is creating this crisis in ocean ecology and we can certainly mitigate the harm we have done and will do. The power of Natures photosynthesis and her countless legions of green plants that perform this vital life producing work for the planet can clearly be powerfully and dangerously influenced by our senseless emission of menacing CO2. On any landscapes and pastures all over the world we regularly intervene to repair the damage we humans have wrought, and we do this vital conserving and healing work effectively and to great benefit to land, sky, and life everywhere. Doing the same on behalf of the world’s ocean pastures requires nothing more than kind-hearted good common sense. A few of us have engaged in dedicated scientific studies of ocean pasture ecology for decades and run many good science experiments and tests of what might help and what effects we might expect.
The best and most revealing of ocean pasture restoration is my work of 2012 where I undertook to restore a modest ocean pasture in the NE Pacific, eventually the revived ocean pasture grew to nearly 50,000 km2 in size. Chartering an ordinary fishing boat on the West coast of Canada I took aboard some 100 tonnes of iron bearing mineral dust and a 11 shipmates. The work include state of the art scientific studies to monitor the ocean before, during, and after and in and out of the pasture being restored. The most intensive ocean science effort ever undertaken in the history of ocean pasture science.
My prescription for this collapsing ocean pasture was to replenish the mineral dust we have denied that patch of blue ocean. In about 10 days of 24/7 work on the rolling deck we spread the dust, mimicking as much as possible the way Mother Nature does the same dusting of her ocean pastures whether she sends the vital rain of dust from a dusty grassland or erupting volcano. The result?
The ocean turned from a blue desert into a blue-green oasis of life.
IT JUST WORKED!
The best measure of success when working to restore our damage to Mother Nature comes not from scientific details but rather in results of whether life has, with our help, once again found a way. My plan was to restore ocean salmon pastures in the Gulf of Alaska. The very next year. The state fish catch forecast for the following year, 2013, was that the fishermen and women of Alaska would enjoy a bountiful catch of some 50 million Pink Salmon. Instead 226 million of those beautiful healthy Pink salmon swam into the nets of Alaska’s fishers, the greatest catch in all of history. And not just in Alaska but in every stream from the smallest rivulet to mightiest river on both Canada and America’s west coast the largest return of Pink salmon in history returned from their and my restored ocean pasture.
The most important scientific testimony of all – The fish came back!
We can and must do more on behalf of ocean ecology so today the plans are in the making to begin restoring ocean pastures in all of the world’s seven seas. This remarkable work will bring dying ocean pastures around the world back to life with the full biodiversity compliment they and we must have. The cocolithophore canaries will find their unparalleled and unsustainable growth will be helped put back into balance with the rest of life they share on vital ocean pastures.
The cost of this globally effective effort will be mere millions of dollars which will be returned magnificently multiplied into the harvest of billions of additional fish, more than enough to become a decisive force in helping to end world hunger for the human race and at the same time restore the health and biodiversity of the world’s oceans to the state they and we enjoyed a century and more.
As a bonus these same restored and abundantly growing ocean pastures will each year convert billions of tonnes of our fossil CO2 into ocean life offering at a cost too cheap to meter the most potent tool of all to manage and mitigate our menacing CO2.
PS… This primer to the ocean ecology and natural history of Pico and his kin is just a piece of the picture, there is much more to learn here on my blog. I’m working on a more definitive natural history of ocean pastures so watch for installments to come.