Humankind has been tending to pastures on land for ten thousand years, but as for the oceans we still treat all but a tiny coastal bit as a “no man’s territory” where we ignore the collapse wrought by our indifference while we incessantly hunt wild things there unto extinction. Our work aims to change this.
The ocean pastures need stewardship. As it was ten thousand years ago when one tiny village became the first to steward a near-by terrestrial pasture our village is doing the same to steward their near-by ocean pasture. Perhaps other villages will follow as they did ten thousand years ago and out of it all, as it happened before, will come what we call civilization.
We are not merely talking we are introducing to the world practical applied ocean science and technologies that empower humankind to become stewards of the ocean pastures. We have started our work in partnership with coastal communities and small island nations to teach and to learn by doing how to engage in sustainable management of ocean pastures so that all of sea life and humankind might have a sustainable future.
Listen to my Podcast with Australia’s National Breakfast Radio Show in 2010[audio http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2010/03/bst_20100310_0643.mp3]
Our understanding of the key role of ocean pasture ecology began for us nearly 25 years ago when one of our favourite earthlings, Professor John Martin, found a key clue to the mystery of how infinitesimal amounts of mineral micro-nutrients empower ocean plankton ecosystems. Martin worked out a long standing problem of accurately measuring iron, the most important ocean mineral micro-nutrient, at concentrations of a few parts per trillion.
This is such an incredibly small concentration that Martin found that the amount of iron contained in a fingerprint inside a sample beaker could throw off the measurement by an enormous degree. When he used his ultra-clean sampling methods he found that the background concentration of iron in the oceans is typically a mere 3 parts per trillion, a million times lower concentration than is required by our red blood to sustain our life or the life of our kindred fish for that matter.
Iron for ocean plant life is critical for those micro-plants, the plankton, to efficiently perform photosynthesis. They can survive but just barely at the low 3 parts per trillion concentration that is the default condition in the oceans but when iron concentrations rise by a mere order of magnitude ocean phyto-plankton blooms in spectacular abundance. Being the base of the ocean food chain plankton blooms are the most important miracle of life on this blue planet.
Professor Martin not being a man to miss an opportunity for a good educational quip made his most memorable contribution to the world at a scientific conference. In parallel to his discovery of the critical role of iron for ocean plant life he had studied the role of ocean plankton blooms through the ages, the ice ages. He’d seen in the geologic record a striking coincidence in the appearance of vast plankton blooms immediately prior to the onset of global coolings that became ice ages. In the fossil record was evidence of greatly enhanced dust falling in the oceans and consequent ocean plankton bloomings with each global cooling epoch. The dust of course carried iron the vital mineral micronutrient that resulted in vast plankton blooms.
In the ancient times when the CO2 levels in our planets atmosphere was in a delicate balance a sudden blooming of plant would entail a dramatic reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. Today we know that CO2 in the atmosphere acts as a greenhouse gas blanket impeding the loss of heat from the planet, at present we’ve increased our CO2 greenhouse blanket to the thickness of a bed full of duvets, in the times of the ice ages the planet was kept warm by the thinnest single sheet, not blanket, of CO2. When the plankton bloomed it rolled over and pulled the sheet off the rest of the world and we all nearly froze to death. Such is the power and sometimes the parsimonious mood of Mother Nature.
What this all led to was our understanding today that the ocean blooms are all about dust in the wind. When dust is abundant the oceans bloom, when it is not they remain deserts. It’s much like our deserts on land and their relationship with rain, when the rains blown in the wind arrive the deserts bloom but mostly the rains arrive only very rarely and the deserts remain barren. Mother Nature is seems has a sense of yin and yang for the lands to bloom they must receive water originating from the oceans, for the oceans to bloom they must receive dust originating from the lands.
The BIG PROBLEM of our fossil fuel age is that nearly a trillion tonnes of new CO2 has accumulated in the planets atmosphere in the last hundred years. That CO2 has become the many thick duvets, the greenhouse gas blankets, nudging the world to a global warming. But the warming is NOT THE BIG PROBLEM, the problem of CO2 is that it nurtures plants on land, and those plants interfer with the dust in the wind. Here’s the simple version.
1. This is a planet where plant life is mostly grass not trees. Think of grass as those plants that are green, lush, and thriving when they have water and brown, dry, and dormant when they do not.
2. Enter an age of high CO2, which results in grass having more water! Say what??? OK here is how it works. Grass turns brown, dry, and dormant when it runs out of water. As the dry season arrives grass loses the last of its water through respiration, breathing, grass needs to keep wet membranes exposed to air just like our lungs in order to take up CO2 and give up oxygen. With high CO2 grasses don’t need to breath as often to obtain the CO2 they need, hence their wet membranes evaporate less water keeping them green and growing for a few weeks longer at the onset of the dry season. Green grass is good ground cover, so less dust blows in the wind. Good news for grass the worst news for plankton blooms, dying out during the fossil fuel age at a rate of 1% per year. What’s that 1% per year mean? It means the amount of plankton blooms disappearing in each five years is as if we were to clear-cut down to bare soil an entire Amazon Rainforest every five years.
3. All we are is dust in the wind, all we are is disappearing fast!