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The lungs of the planet

Written By: - Date published: 9:05 am, July 29th, 2010 - 38 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment - Tags: ,

How many dead canaries does it take? The warning indicators of an impending ecological collapse keep piling up. Forests get most of the headlines, but in many ways the oceans are the lungs of the planet. And they’ve been smoking 30 a day for too long. The effects are becoming clear:

Plankton, base of ocean food web, in big decline

Despite their tiny size, plant plankton found in the world’s oceans are crucial to much of life on Earth. They are the foundation of the bountiful marine food web, produce half the world’s oxygen and suck up harmful carbon dioxide.
And they are declining sharply.

Worldwide phytoplankton levels are down 40 percent since the 1950s, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The likely cause is global warming, which makes it hard for the plant plankton to get vital nutrients, researchers say.

The numbers are both staggering and disturbing, say the Canadian scientists who did the study and a top U.S. government scientist. “It’s concerning because phytoplankton is the basic currency for everything going on in the ocean,” said Dalhousie University biology professor Boris Worm, a study co-author. “It’s almost like a recession … that has been going on for decades.”

Half a million datapoints dating to 1899 show that plant plankton levels in nearly all of the world’s oceans started to drop in the 1950s. The biggest changes are in the Arctic, southern and equatorial Atlantic and equatorial Pacific oceans.

Plant plankton — some of it visible, some microscopic — help keep Earth cool. They take carbon dioxide — the key greenhouse gas — out of the air to keep the world from getting even warmer, Boyce said.

Worm said when the surface of the ocean gets warmer, the warm water at the top doesn’t mix as easily with the cooler water below. That makes it tougher for the plant plankton which are light and often live near the ocean surface to get nutrients in deeper, cooler water. It also matches other global warming trends, with the biggest effects at the poles and around the equator.

Combine this with the evidence of increasing acidification of oceans and the message is clear. The lungs of the planet are giving out on us.

[Update: From comments – ‘best evidence yet’ of rising long-term global temperatures]

38 comments on “The lungs of the planet ”

  1. outofbed 1

    Global warming pushes 2010 temperatures to record highs

    Scientists from two leading climate research centres publish ‘best evidence yet’ of rising long-term global temperatures


    So what we gunna do?

  2. Macro 2

    Yet again the answer is provided for us by all seeing/knowing “anti spam”!
    (and no it is not “42”.)
    “Will”! that is what we lack.
    We simply lack the will.

    Anti-spam word “will”

    • Draco T Bastard 2.1

      Actually, we lack unbiased news sources which tell it like it is rather than trying to look objective by giving equal time to the deniers which creates doubt in the populace and the populace want to keep on living the way that we do which causes that doubt to blossom into non-action. It’s time that anyone who propagates denialist propaganda was taken to court and sued for lying through their teeth.

  3. Whiskey Tango Mike Foxtrot 3

    Just so long as no one mentions HAARP,
    Microwaving the outer layers of the atmosphere would NEVER effect the weather, nothing to see here, go back to sleep sheeple…
    It’s got to be CO2… Bloodly third world polluters!

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      You really have NFI WTF you’re talking about do you?

      • Whiskey Tango Mike Foxtrot 3.1.1

        Tackle the issue, not the person Draco.

        • Draco T Bastard

          If had any idea you would have known that such as HAARP couldn’t possibly do what you implied it could do, ergo, you have NFI WTF you’re talking about.

    • NickS 3.2

      Forgotten your pills again?

      For fuck’s sake HAARP is there to do research on the ionosphere, it doesn’t kick out anywhere enough radiation into the atmosphere to impact on the local climate, let alone trigger world-wide changes. Say, unlike this big fusing ball of hydrogen and helium which is gravitationally dominates the solar system.

      As for HAARP containing microwave emitters, lolwat? 10 fruitless minutes of searching find nothing from any sources other than conspiracy nuts. So I’m calling bullshit on it. Does it have microwave receivers? Yes, but the hardware required for emitting microwaves is not the same as receiving them. Not to mention either you’d probably get far more microwaves from X-rays hitting the upper atmosphere that what HAARP could emit. And that’s not even getting into the fact microwave radiation is scattered quite a bit my the atmosphere, to the point that microwave emitting masers are only really possible in a vacuum.

      • Whiskey Tango Mike Foxtrot 3.2.1

        Looks like I’ve lost the whole bottle of pills NickS but thank you for waiting till your second sentence to start swearing at me.
        I believe whole heartly in conspiracy theory as I am sure that when the good guys at bullshitting get around to bullshitting; 80% of it’s going to be tru and the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. I am in no way saying that man is not going through assisted suicide with our imbalancing of the dynamic equilibrium of earth.
        I am opening the debate into the milatary-industrial-wall street-complex thingy operated by our brothers overseas, and how much are those PTB are cutting back for enviro day verses how much they spend fucking it.
        I dont know much about microwave emitters and such but having an open mind, if you say its not possible, cool, I’ll say lets see. (Those yank buddies of ours are awfully dodgy, you have to admit).

  4. Chris 4

    A little part of me is saying if plankton, which provide half of the worlds primary production, had declined by 40% in the last 60 years it would have been noticed indirectly already

    • r0b 4.1

      Maybe the world’s plummeting fish stocks aren’t all to do with over-fishing.

    • NickS 4.2


      Sources at the bottom, read the nature article, and try and read the sources at the bottom.

      Who knows, you might even learn something.

      • Whiskey Tango Mike Foxtrot 4.2.1

        Couldn’t global dimming be the more likely cause? They do photo sythn? No?

        • NickS

          You know, there’s this wonderful thing called wikipedia, and for all the vandalism, it’s still a decent resources for a quick overview of a lot of subjects.

          And going to it, you would have seen that global dimming involves a drop in sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, which is generally caused by particulate matter (sulphur oxides, soot or fine ash) in the upper atmosphere from large scale volcanic eruptions, continent spanning forest fires and nuclear wars. Or if the technology ever goes from concept to reality, a solar shade for mitigating climate change.

          What this drop in phytoplankton is likely to do though is cause less carbon sequestration, as plankton falls to in the deeper ocean where it’s generally either eaten, or buried by sediment, and typically the carbon from it stays in the deep. Rather than say going back into the atmosphere. Potentially leading to a positive climate change feedback loop.

          And since I’m as tired as hell, go google it.

    • Shane 4.3

      Yep – the plummeting fish stocks – two forces at work; over-fishing masking the second reason.

  5. jbanks 5

    When Global Warming starts noticeably effecting the majority of people then science will step in. No point getting hysterical when for most of us, had the media not reported it, we wouldn’t even notice any significant change.

    • Pascal's bookie 5.1

      Science isn’t jesus jb. It doesn’t work like that.

      And if they media hadn’t reported it would you have noticed 9/11, to take an example? If not, then I guess it is foolishness that we have sent troops to related war zones.

      • jbanks 5.1.1

        Don’t be daft. If it’s justified, then if we throw enough money & resources at the problem it would be solved rather quickly. Atm it’s not justified.

        And we didn’t need 9/11 to justify helping in war zones. It’ a good investment for the future safety of New Zealand.

        • Pascal's bookie

          Your plan looks to be no different from folk who claim that if you pray hard enough to Jesus, he will solve your problems.

          Except that you substitute money for prayer, and Jesus for science.

          But as I said, science doesn’t work like that.

          • jbanks

            Only someone caught up in the whole global warming doomsday hysteria would be naive enough to think science is anything like religion. We perform experiments to see if evidence supports an idea before we create a theory, then if new evidence comes along and can’t be reconciled with the theory then it’s scrapped.

            Nice try chicken little.

            • Pascal's bookie

              Good thing I said (twice) that science doesn’t work like religion then. dipshit.

              So perhaps you can tell me how throwing money at the problem will inevitably and quickly fix it. Sounds like a faith based proposition to me. Unless of course you already know what would need to be done to counteract the problem.

              Front up jb.

              Tell us precisely what you would spend the money on, ie how we would counter the effects of AGW. (Protip: ‘research’ is not an answer)

              As I said, your proposal,
              to just let things get worse,
              and then throw money at the problem,
              which will then be solved, as if by magic…

              Is not how things work, yours is a jeebus approach.

              At the moment, the science tells us things,
              which suggest we should be taking action now.

              But that latter is a political question.

              Your politics suggests we should ignore the problem for now, because you can’t see it (even if the scientists can), and rely on future jeebus science to save us.

              I say future jeebus science is a false messiah. Bad religion, even worse science.

              BTW: Are you one of Tolley’s 20 percenters by any chance?

  6. jbanks 6

    “So perhaps you can tell me how throwing money at the problem will inevitably and quickly fix it. Sounds like a faith based proposition to me. Unless of course you already know what would need to be done to counteract the problem.”

    Man you end of the world exaggerators are a bit slow eh? The problem is about financial priorities. The more resources and people we devote to exploring innovative approaches to combating a warming world the faster the problem will be solved.

    “At the moment, the science tells us things, which suggest we should be taking action now.”

    At the moment global warming is not as dire as you unqualified worriers say, so the priority level & financial commitment matches reality.

    “Your politics suggests we should ignore the problem for now, because you can’t see it (even if the scientists can), and rely on future jeebus science to save us.”

    No not ignore. Just not over commit at the expense of the economy just because you delusional greenies can’t see the big picture.

    Kids, stay in school.

    • Pascal's bookie 6.1

      The more resources and people we devote to exploring innovative approaches…

      I told you ‘research’ wasn’t actually an answer to the question I asked.

      The 20 percenter hypothesis is gaining support.

      Just for starters, tell me how you think we might begin to go about lowering the acidity level of the oceans.

      But I jest.

      I already know your answer is ‘jeebus science will save us, likkity split, throw enough money at it, and it will be solved, just in time. Thanks jeebus science!’.

      But financial priorities then.

      To know how to set them, we need to know:

      1) How much it would cost to start reducing the problem now

      ii) How much it will cost to fix the damage that is already in play

      iii) How much it will cost to fix the damage we will incur if we don’t act now.

      There are obviously a whole bunch of other things we need to know as well, but those three are the absolute bare minimum we need to know to determine the priority we should place on acting now. ‘iii’ is the most important.

      You claim to know the correct level of effort we should be committing to the problem now, so show your work.

      Show me, with actual numbers and shit, and without resorting to jeebus science jumping in a saving us, why you think iii is the cheapest option.

      If you don’t think it’s the cheapest option, or can’t give me any reason to think it even might be cheaper, then why shouldn’t we act sooner rather than later.

      • jbanks 6.1.1

        Heard of the Kyoto Protocol? How about the Copenhagen Accord?
        Net emissions increase 1999-2006
        1. Sweden -61.8%
        2. Norway -31.8%
        3. Estonia -23.4%
        4. Monaco -21.4%
        5. Finland -9.2%
        6. France -6.3%
        7. Belgium -5.3%
        8. Hungary -4.6%
        9. Slovakia -4.5%
        10. Poland -4.3%
        11. Denmark -3.4%
        12. Netherlands -3.2%
        13. United Kingdom -2.6%
        14. Germany -2.0%
        15. European Community -0.9%
        16. Portugal 0.9%
        17. Japan 0.9%
        18. United States 0.9%
        19. Italy 2.7%
        20. Ireland 3.0%
        21. Liechtenstein 3.9%
        22. Iceland 5.3%
        23. Bulgaria 6.2%
        24. Greece 7.0%
        25. Australia 8.2%
        26. Czech Republic 8.6%
        27. Switzerland 8.8%
        28. Canada 11.0%
        29. New Zealand 12.0%
        30. Spain 18.0%
        31. Turkey 33.3%

        And this is even before the global consensus that countries need to make a real effort with incentives like trading schemes. And, efforts aren’t solely focused on reducing CO2 emission. Billions of dollars are being invested to climate change mitigation via carbon sinks ie reversing existing warming.
        Enough’s being done. People with a lot more smarts than you are on the case. So go point your weed stained fingers somewhere else leech.

        • Pascal's bookie

          How does that explain why ‘iii’ is the cheapest option?

          Don’t bring your weak ass shit round here and then cry when asked to back it up.

          • jbanks

            I just showed that your question:

            “iii) How much it will cost to fix the damage we will incur if we don’t act now.”

            has the most retarded assumption that we’re not acting now.

            Seriously, marijuana has fried your brain. Go beat up a spy base.

            • Pascal's bookie

              No it doesn’t, it’s a hypothetical. That’s what the word ‘if’ means.

              So I take it you support the ongoing and increasing measures being taken to put costs on greenhouse gas emissions?

              And your numbers, what is the global net figure? Is the ppm still increasing? If it isn’t, then we are not doing anything yet other than make the problem worse.

              So once again, what is the cost of getting aggressive about fixing that in the future, compared to doing it now, taking into account the extra damage done while we wait?

  7. randal 7

    get it right you guys.
    my dream is I must have a speedboat, winchester trophy model, hotrod, hardly davison, trip to macchu picchu, leaf blower, flat screen teevee, cellphone, v8, trip to the grand final, exotic wood timber decking and anything else i might desire so that anybody and everybody else can see what a wonderful person I am because of the magnificence of my possessions and to hell with anything else!

  8. JonL 8

    At the moment global warming is not as dire as you unqualified worriers say, so the priority level & financial commitment matches reality.
    …unfortunately, the multiple causes and effects of global warming are slow and drawn out, but inexorable – by the time most “deniers” realise there is a problem, it’s going to be far to late – like a slow motion car crash that, once it starts, all you can do is watch the whole ghastly process unfold without being able to do a thing to alter the course of events – they can only be altered by action before the crash – once it starts, we’re f**cked!

  9. NickS 9

    I’ll try and look at the paper when I get a chance/motivation (bloody depression):

    But to put it really simply, a small yearly change is often difficult to notice, especially if it’s already problematic to make accurate recordings of the phenomena of interest. Like global phytoplankton levels. Which in turns means it might just end up hidden by other changes and thus be missed by causal observers.

  10. RedLogix 10

    Back in about 1982 I was the instrumentation/electronics techie for an oceanographic trip, three months of 4 hours on/8 hours off, corkscrewing about the swells of the Southern Ocean. There was nothing glamorous about it, and the whole rather demanding experience left me with a huge respect for the sheer commitment and hard grunt that researchers put into getting actual field data.

    (The people who do the work, put their arses on the line to get the data and observations….they know the reality of CO2 induced climate change because they are the ones who are measuring it’s undeniable effects. By total contrast the deniers are to a man, armchair quarter-backs who NEVER do any field work or original research for themselves.)

    Specifically we were measuring phytoplankton density by sampling surface sea-water into a 500mL clear glass bottle, adding a few mL of a nutrient solution with a Carbon 14 isotope added, and then placing it in a cabinet on the quarter-deck under controlled flourescent lighting for 24 hrs. After that time the sample was pulled back into the lab, the phytoplankton killed with formaldehyde and then filtered and dried. The more phytoplankton in the original sample, the more it grew during the 24 hr test period, uptaking more nutrient and thus C14… the small amount of radiation given off being readily measureable with a gieger counter type instrument.

    A simple procedure, made exciting by the need to transfer several bottles on the hour, every hour with both hands full on a rolling sea deck and to literally use a foot to kick open the latch on the hatch to the outside deck…and back again. Dropping a bottle was not an option as C14 spillage would have come with a bad risk of invalidating the results.

    This new revelation about phytoplankton decline has to be the most terrifying read all year. I’m not suprised that it’s taken quite a while to get these results, the oceans are a huge place and science researchers are spread very thin in both time and space…but it can mean only one thing.

    The oceans are dying.

    That’s bad enough, but far worse is that most of us humans don’t care.

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      If the seas die then I’d expect that most of life on Earth will die with them. They clean most of the air to make it breathable, supply huge amounts of the food chain and even help regulate the temperature of the Earth.

      As I’ve said before – we’re heading toward an Anthropogenic Extinction Level Event and very few people seem to be willing to do anything about it. The politicians are missing and seem to be down the club with the Business Roundtable.

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