Think winds and tides are most important in creating motion in the oceans?
Think again, vital ocean motion is made most by the collective action of trillions of tiny feet, fins, and flagella.
Zooplankton, tiny animals that swim in countless multitudes move the ocean as they go about their lives feeding on drifting plankton, now tiny plants are also seen to be swimmers!
All is not well with Lilliputian ocean life, and with their demise the oceans are slowing and becoming still and sedentary and that’s not good.
Most know of the Lilliputian power of vast numbers amassed by armies of the tiny, Gulliver discovered first hand this power in his travels. In my lifetime of travelling into the blue world of plankton I have been fortunate to witness the power of plankton. These tiny life forms both plant and animals don’t just drift aimlessly out there in the blue. They work tirelessly to keep our blue planets’ oceans alive and well and not too hot, not too cold, but ahhh… just right.
Plankton have been evolving for every much as long as we humans and in those billions of years of evolution have developed very complex behaviours and characteristics that give them the power and the will to survive. For plankton everything is attuned to the cycles of night and day which is illustrated by the greatest migration on Earth, our blue planet, that takes place every evening and morning as trillions of tiny feet stir their ocean.
To grasp the relative power of plankton swimming consider this. It is said that the total energy transferred into the ocean via winds and tides is about half a terawatt (0.6TW). But ocean life takes in 63+ terawatts of energy from the sun. Something like 10% of that 63 terawatts powers the trillions of tiny feet. Those living feet, fins, fan flagella are thus delivering ten times the motion to the ocean as the non-biotic sources. This is no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a bath and stirred the bath water with a stroke of the hand to mix and make the bath temperature just right.
Here’s an amazing video about plankton swimmers
It’s not all about us.
Humanity seems to think this blue world is all about the life forms that live on land and that we are both biggest and best and by inference therefore the most important and powerful. Our science which has been highly selected to examine and report on what seems important to us inevitably results in proclamations in the form of dogma’s, sharia’s, and dharmashastra’s.
Meanwhile the most abundant, hardy, and persistent tiny form of life on our planet, plankton, simply follows it’s highly evolved path that has just worked for some billions of years. While we humans have shown we can influence this planet’s environment and climate we don’t hold a candle to the plankton.
Day and Night Shifts
In a new paper in the Journal Nature yet another report on the sophisticated evolution of phytoplankton reveals that these tiny mostly microscopic life forms engage in a responsive behaviour on a daily cycle. it seems they live a commuters lifestyle and every morning and evening engage in a commute to and from work. Daily commuter life for phytoplankton is going to work performing photosynthesis, capturing the energy of sunlight and using that energy to not merely procreate but also to massively control their blue planet’s climate.
By day, these tiny ocean pasture plants, many only a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair, actively work/swim to remain in the sunlit ocean surface to carry out photosynthesis. As night falls, they make their way to depths of tens of meters, where the supply of nutrients is greater and they are also thinned out as with the night legions of grazing zooplankton will arrive from hundreds of meters below to begin grazing on the ocean pasture.
Phytoplankton cells also often encounter turbulent layers that disrupt this essential migratory pattern. It is still a mystery how these minute organisms can navigate through the dangers of turbulent waters. The tiny plants are wildly mixed by turbulence—particularly by the smallest, millimeter-sized flow vortices—as if they were in a washing machine.
The turbulence can rip their fragile flagella that provides them with propulsion or even simply break their cell envelope. Vast numbers of micro algae have evolved a sophisticated behaviour to living in the washing machine.
The scientists writing in this new paper “brought the ocean into the lab” and examined the migratory behavior of Heterosigma akashiwo, an alga known for forming large algal blooms. To examine swimming behavior, the researchers used a micro-chamber, just a few cubic millimeters in volume, in which they introduced the infinitesimal Heterosigma cells. The chamber could rotate along its axis with a computer-controlled motor, exposing cells to periodic flips in orientation replicating how tiny turbulent vortices flip the cells upside down in the ocean.
The scientists were able to observe their planktor population moving upwards split into two equally sized groups over a period of 30 minutes after the chamber was repeatedly flipped by 180 degrees. One group of planktors continued to strive upwards, whereas the other group switched behavior and began to swim in the opposite direction. This population split did not occur with the planktors in stationary chambers, in which all swam continuously upwards and accumulated near the top surface.
By zooming in to study single cells, the researchers discovered the reason for the change in swimming behavior. When exposed to the turbulence-like cues, the living plankton were observed to rapidly adapt and change their shape to be more efficient swimmers, from pear-shaped cells swimming upwards into egg-shaped cells that swam downwards.
Strikingly, this shift involved changes of less than a micrometer. “It is spectacular that a cell barely 10 micrometers in size can adapt its shape to change its swimming direction,” says Carrara, one of the scientists.
The scientists are certain this mechanism is NOT just a coincidence. “The algae have adapted perfectly to their ocean habitat: they can actively swim, they perceive a range of different environmental signals, including turbulence, and they rapidly adapt and regulate their behavior accordingly.”
“We now better understand how these microorganisms confront potentially detrimental situations, however, at the moment we can only speculate as to why the cells do this.” Clearly the response of the tiny plants is a highly evolved and intelligent one.
Oceans tiny feet, fins, and flagella are in danger
Today life in the ocean has changed more than on Earth. While humanity may think we are making life difficult for our kind on land our impact on ocean life is today more than ten times worse and compounding. The life of the ocean is primarily created by and for its ocean pastures. Those ocean pastures are the largest solar energy collectors in the known universe. By comparison our human solar panels may make use of 10% of the suns energy that falls upon them but ocean photosynthesis make use of more than 90% of the suns energy received.
The ocean pastures, just like pastures on land, must be cared for to remain healthy and abundant and it is the armies of Lilliputian’s that do the work. But in the living ocean as this new paper in Nature (and many more preceding it) describe the tilling and tending of ocean pastures is performed by both animals and plants. And even more importantly they don’t simply do this vital work on behalf of their blue planet and ours in an aimless unintelligent fashion, they do the right thing at the right time!
It is the every move they make that provides for most every breath you take.
Humanity has changed everything for the plankton through our nearly instantaneous, aka 100 year, emission of a trillion tonnes of CO2 from our fossil fueled industrial age. That trillion tonnes of CO2 already emitted, yesterday’s CO2, is already a near lethal dose for ocean pastures and the life within them that stirs our blue planet’s living broth. The ocean pastures make 9 out of every 10 breaths of oxygen you breathe in in every breath you take.
More grass growing means less dust blowing.
Our high CO2 is helping plants on land grow better, that is called ‘global greening‘, and while more grass growing on land may sound good it means less dust blowing which is the unintended consequence of our fossil fuel addiction. On land plant life lives in mineral soil and it survives and thrives when the rains fall from the sky above. In the ocean plant life lives in water and it survives and thrives only when the vital dust falls from the sky above.
As the first lethal dose of our CO2 is already set upon the world the ocean pastures and their Lilliputian plants and animals are the first to begin dying. Ocean life is perishing at a rate unparalleled to anything taking place on land.
Take for example the well known crisis of the plight of the Amazon Rainforest which today has been diminished by about 20%, this degradation is widely proclaimed as one of the most iconic environmental disasters on Earth. But in the blue part of this planet, the oceans that cover 72% of our world, an equivalent to one entire Amazon Rainforest of ocean pasture life has been eradicated every five years since 1950! That’s 12 entire Amazon forests, not merely 20% of one single Amazon gone! All for the lack of a little dust in the wind.
You can read everywhere on this blog about how we can and must AND WILL restore the ocean pastures to historic health and abundance.