Join 3,554 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Well, I guess that proves Robert Frost's famous poetic conjecture
July 29, 2010 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950. Estimates are that the population of these little critters that form the base of the global food chain and that "also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world's oxygen output" is declining by roughly one percent annually. One possible causal factor cited for the decline is global warming. The latest findings on that issue are out, too, and in case you were still wondering: Ten key indicators show global warming "undeniable".

.
posted by saulgoodman (60 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's a supplemental link to the source material referenced in the second article.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:57 PM on July 29, 2010


Ten key indicators show global warming "undeniable".

Wrong. This implies that people will no longer deny it.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:59 PM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh shit.
posted by clarknova at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Welcome to Venus.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every generation seems to believe they are likely the last. Unfortunately, for once we may be right.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:02 PM on July 29, 2010


Wrong. This implies that people will no longer deny it.

Fox News Headline: Liberal Web Site Says Global Warming Report Conclusions are 'Wrong.'
posted by PlusDistance at 1:03 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


> Wrong. This implies that people will no longer deny it.

Due to the extreme shifts in both summer and winter temperatures, Fox News & co will be bleating the same "where's your global warming now?" nonsense this December when there are record blizzards.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:04 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter is brought to you by Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, high energy vegetable concentrates, and new, delicious, Soylent Green, the miracle food of high-energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:06 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


'Sokay. The asteroid will shade us for a little while.
posted by jquinby at 1:10 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah I really do wish that we'd gone ahead with 'climate change' from the beginning rather than starting with 'global warming' and then trying to awkwardly jump to 'climate change' when Fox News started with the 'But I'm wearing a sweater! YOUR SCIENCE IS WRONG' bullshit because then it looks like we're shifting goalposts.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:11 PM on July 29, 2010


Scientific American is owned and operated by ACORN, right? It must be. Somewhere deep in the conspiracy.
posted by spicynuts at 1:17 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


'Sokay. The asteroid will shade us for a little while.

Well, maybe not. Seems to me if the population of phytoplankton has declined by 40% just since the 1950s (about 60 years ago), then within another 50 to 60 years (assuming the decline remains linear, which may be an optimistic assumption), the population will be down to only about 20% of where it was in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, unless I miss my guess, we'll probably already be in enough trouble when it gets to that point that there's not much chance we'll be around to see that spectacular asteroid impact 100 years from now.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:20 PM on July 29, 2010


The other factor: BP spilling a wee bit of oil.
posted by stormpooper at 1:20 PM on July 29, 2010


Hey, I have a friend who studies this! She is right now in the Atlantic on a boat studying the effect that the volcanic ash cloud has had on the phytoplankton population.
posted by amro at 1:21 PM on July 29, 2010


Article about the cruise.
posted by amro at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2010


I really do wish that we'd gone ahead with 'climate change' from the beginning rather than starting with 'global warming'

The phrase "global warming" acquired its modern meaning 35 years ago next week. "Climate change" the generic term that refers climate changing in response to any number of forcings has been around a lot longer than that. To the climate science community "global warming" has always been a shorthand phrase for the "human activities are increasing greenhouse gases which will warm the earth" subset of climate change.
posted by plastic_animals at 1:23 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is how those goddamn phytoplankton thank us after all the phosphorus we've let them bloom in? Fuck those tiny bastards, we'll take our pollution elsewhere.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:23 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Due to the extreme shifts in both summer and winter temperatures, Fox News & co will be bleating the same "where's your global warming now?" nonsense this December when there are record blizzards.

Hell, they were bleating this a few weeks ago when Los Angeles had a slightly-cooler-than-normal week -- while there were record-breaking heatwaves at the exact same moment elsewhere in the country.
posted by scody at 1:24 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


A passage worth noting from plastic_animal's link:
To those who even today claim that global warming is not predictable, the anniversary of Broecker’s paper is a reminder that global warming was actually predicted before it became evident in the global temperature records over a decade later (when Jim Hansen in 1988 famously stated that “global warming is here”).
posted by saulgoodman at 1:26 PM on July 29, 2010


The muppet guy said that?
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:34 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


What they deliberately won't tell you, of course, is that cooler temperatures in some places is exactly what's expected in global warming.

Energy is heat; heat is energy. When you add heat to the atmosphere, you add energy to it. That means that winds get stronger, and blow further. There's a large temperature differential between the equator and the poles, and stronger winds mean that these gradients get mixed more. So you get heat blowing way up north, but that cold air has to go somewhere, so it gets blown way down south. Much of this paired alteration happens out at sea, where we don't measure it, but when the American South is in a deep freeze, it's often downright balmy up in Canada.

Overall, as the global average temperature slowly increases, the hots get hotter, the colds get colder, and everything gets more intense.
posted by Malor at 1:36 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


To the climate science community "global warming" has always been a shorthand phrase for the "human activities are increasing greenhouse gases which will warm the earth" subset of climate change.

I meant in the vernacular.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:37 PM on July 29, 2010


The muppet guy said that?
People always underestimate the drummer.

posted by saulgoodman at 1:38 PM on July 29, 2010


"Energy is heat; heat is energy. When you add heat to the atmosphere, you add energy to it. "

The solution is simple, we need a bigger atmosphere.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:41 PM on July 29, 2010


To the climate science community "global warming" has always been a shorthand phrase for the "human activities are increasing greenhouse gases which will warm the earth" subset of climate change.

See this is why the climate science community needs the same sorts of PR people that the denialists use. People hear "Global Warming" and think "Well, I like warm weather, that's fine with me." If they called CO2 "TOXIC DEATH GAS" and ran ads that said "TOXIC DEATH GAS WILL KILL YOUR GRANDCHILDREN" or "THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO POISON YOU WITH TOXIC DEATH GAS" people who don't understand climate science might care about it more.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:42 PM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is why it was wrong to curtail the wholesale slaughter of those plankton eating climate killing whales. Once again the Japanese were way ahead of the curve.
posted by zeoslap at 1:47 PM on July 29, 2010


The abstract from the journal Nature is here.
The study cited in the SCIAM article is here.

I may be whistling past the graveyard here but I'm having trouble with the notion that 40% of the base of the food chain has disappeared without there being drastic results and I'm also having trouble believing something so drastic is only now, by scientists, being reported.
posted by vapidave at 1:52 PM on July 29, 2010


"Government Subsidizing Toxic Death Gas Production at a Rate Twelve Times Greater than that of Non-Toxic Death Gas Alternatives"

"New Revelations about Big Tobacco and Big Oil Conspiracy to Cover-up Dangers of Toxic Death Gas"

"Iraq War Really about Toxic Death Gas, Wolfowitz Confirms"

I like it. It pops.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:54 PM on July 29, 2010


Is there historical data on atmospheric oxygen content? (aside from that which is in our melting glaciers and icecaps)
posted by yesster at 1:56 PM on July 29, 2010


40% of the base of the food chain has disappeared without there being drastic results

Well, haven't there has been massive aquatic extinction and coral reef failures going on for awhile now?
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:59 PM on July 29, 2010


I may be whistling past the graveyard here but I'm having trouble with the notion that 40% of the base of the food chain has disappeared without there being drastic results

Yeah, that's a good point.

There really haven't been any previous indications that things aren't going so well, ecologically speaking, now that you mention it.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just love that Shatner record so much I slip a reference to it whenever I can.
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2010


Yeah, it's just that it's not toxic death gas. Look, you already have Boehner talking to George Stephanopolous and saying that "the idea that CO2 is a carcinogen that harms our environment is laughable." He's debunking a nonsense claim that nobody's even making, because even the very basic scientific information is not accessible for most folks.

I see your invisible HAMBURGER, of course, but I want to be clear that the solution to people not understanding climate change is not better rhetoric.

Anyway, don't fret. It seems like most of the kids in public school these days totally get it and don't see what the big deal is.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 2:08 PM on July 29, 2010


Pfft. Muscular Jesus will not allow anything to befall his Pure White Babies. As long as you pray to Saint Reagan (peace be upon him), everything will be OK.

...the rest of you, however, are completely screwed. But hey, you knew that already, right?
posted by aramaic at 2:11 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Anyway, don't fret. It seems like most of the kids in public school these days totally get it and don't see what the big deal is.

But at this rate, they won't have enough time to do anything about it, whether they get the problem or not. (And I don't say that lightly, because I have a young son.)

If the United States Joint Forces Command's Joint Operating Environment report (not to mention most analysts in the oil industry) is right, and world oil production is going to be outpaced by consumption to the tune of 10 million barrels per day by as soon as 2015, then it's likely we won't have enough supply of oil to sustain our current way of life within the next 30 years.

In that event, our kids are going to be too busy just trying to survive at all to be able to contend with larger, more global issues like reversing the dangerous ecological trends we've already started (which will likely require some pretty sophisticated technological solutions to manage, if they can be managed at all).

I hate to throw my lot in with the doomsayers, but it seems to me the time window for any realistic chance of responding to our situation in a way that averts a major existential threat to our continued survival on this planet is getting narrower and by this point may have already closed.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:22 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


saulgoodman: Yeah, the running out of time occurred to me after posting the "don't fret" bit. While I tend to think a lot about how to improve public access to science knowledge... it's not actually the most important thing here. The race to win hearts and minds, though it might be winnable in the long game, is not the important race.

Getting the US and other nations to quickly, *really* change the energy infrastructure such that we aren't producing greenhouse gases *at all* is the important race. And it really might be too late.

:-/ It really is all a big, scary deal.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 2:34 PM on July 29, 2010


No, no, no. You were supposed to convince me I'm still wrong to fret despite the mountains of contrary evidence.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:38 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seems like the food chain is already being affected.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:56 PM on July 29, 2010


Getting the US and other nations to quickly, *really* change the energy infrastructure such that we aren't producing greenhouse gases *at all* is the important race. And it really might be too late.

Systems of government are technologies just like photovoltaics and wind turbines. Certainly in that sense we do not have the technology to make this change. Pretending that this is something we will be able to solve is like saying that we could end wars if people stopped fighting them.
We have yet to discover a globally applicable technology of governance capable of preventing war or making drastic energy infrastructure changes in the face of threats with a time horizon in decades.
posted by atrazine at 2:59 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Back in the 60s they showed us kids films of how we should Duck and Cover when the bombs came. But they couldn't fool us--we all knew that eventually we'd be flash-fried by an atomic fireball. We just knew it.

At least that would have been mercifully quick. Now we'll have to watch as we slowly spiral in. Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed.
posted by kinnakeet at 3:08 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


<>

What I want is to believe in God.
Then I want him to intervene in the form of a giant apparition in the sky that you can see worldwide.
Then I want him to confirm all this, after which everyone who has ever parroted the climate change deniers schtick is shunned, shamed, bankrupted, and forced to live on an island somewhere.
Then I want all the Limbaughs, Becks, and Fox News types to get the Last-10-Minutes-of-Braveheart treatment in perpetuity forever in a way that we all can watch, after having been granted eternal life by the aforementioned God.

The End


/<>
posted by Senor Cardgage at 3:09 PM on July 29, 2010


Ha ha! Shrinking carrying capacity!
posted by Xoebe at 3:09 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey! Preview SHOWED my tags as having "daydream wish fulfillment nonsense" in them.

We (for the 9 millionth time) need post-editability.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 3:10 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whales fertilized the plankton

Trophic cascades
posted by hank at 4:20 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


vapidave wrote: "I may be whistling past the graveyard here but I'm having trouble with the notion that 40% of the base of the food chain has disappeared without there being drastic results and I'm also having trouble believing something so drastic is only now, by scientists, being reported."

I think, but am not sure, that the majority of plankton don't get eaten; they just die and sink to the bottom of the ocean.
posted by wierdo at 5:19 PM on July 29, 2010


THE END IS NIGH!!!
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:51 PM on July 29, 2010


Warming of Oceans Will Reduce and Rearrange Marine Life
posted by homunculus at 12:33 AM on July 30, 2010


If only we had a little more time...

If only we had taken a little more care...

...with what we had been granted... of what we had been tasked with...

Stewards.

That is all that we ever really needed to be.

It is that sacred task that we have so unequivocally failed to do...

I drive to the East out to the A1A... then turn South past the mansions which cost millions... standing, waiting to be washed away when the next great storm moves across the face of the waters...

I drive further... it is finally dark. A national park wedged between merging communities... half way to the oldest of cities...

I park and walk over the dunes... out on the sand. It is dark... so very dark. I can see all the cosmos... I can feel the spray on my face... I can taste the salt on my tongue.

There between the ends of the Earth and the Sky, I look across the face of the waters... an old beacon burns in the South further still... sweeping out across the Sea...

I turn, face to the wind... the waters churning, boiling against the sands...

Time...

As ancient as this all is...

It will mask all the things that we have done...

We will be forgotten...

In time.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 4:36 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Increasingly, I walk around in my mostly-unchanged, day to day world, and read stories like this, and think that I'm going crazy, because we are all mostly pretending none of this is happening. We are all making plans for retirement and vacations and giving a crap about our office job politics as though everything was going to just keep on the same as always.

I was wondering just the other day if the fact that so many of us seem to be medicated against despair is because we know bad stuff is near and we (the non-powerful we, anyway) are helpless to stop it. Sort of the equivalent of the way animals act before an earthquake.

If we don't end up being an evolutionary dead end, it will be a fucking miracle. I'm not a big believer in miracles.

I have a son, so I want to be wrong. If I knew five years ago what I know now, I might not have had him. I hope he gets to have a future.
posted by emjaybee at 7:23 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


If we don't end up being an evolutionary dead end, it will be a fucking miracle. I'm not a big believer in miracles.

Mammals have a species lifespan of around a million years so while it is almost an evolutionary certainty that we will at some point in the future become extinct I don't think that your son has anything to worry about.

Personally I hold out some hope that there is something intrinsically special about sentient life and that we may have to ability to dodge the bullet. We are now, as a species, very close to achieving directed evolution. Once we achieve this ability colonizing the rest of our solar system and eventually other star systems will much less problematic. From a biological perspective that is.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:30 AM on July 30, 2010


One of the links up-thread mentions this in the context of how whales help "ferilize" phytoplankton: So here's the basic idea: phytoplankton bloom in surface waters that contain lots of water-soluble iron.

So... Is there any chance we could could counteract these effects and induce phytoplankton blooms with the right combinations of nutrients into the water? I mean, in a way without even more undesirable downstream consequences? We've successfully preserved (and even restored) populations of other forms of life in the past. What are the chances we could reverse this decline through engineering?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:36 AM on July 30, 2010


We are now, as a species, very close to achieving directed evolution.

No we're not. Don't be foolish. Not if we don't have the energy sources to fuel our "exponential" biotechnological development. Even Kurzwiel projects the really major breakthroughs in these fields will be another 20 to 30 years out, assuming development continues at the same exponential rate. We will have already started running desperately low on petroleum fuel supplies long before then, and the phytoplankton populations in the oceans will have declined by another 20 to 30 percent by then.

That will probably already be past the breaking point for the food chain. Phytoplankton is an indispensable requirement for supporting life on earth as we know it. It's not optional. Nothing can survive once phytoplankton populations diminish beyond a certain point. It could be a relatively slow process of extinction, spanning several decades, after we reach that point, but once the food chain breaks down, we won't have the luxury of devoting time and resources to affecting directed evolution, or much of anything else. Not to mention, oxygen will be thinning out of the atmosphere, and that will have additional cascading effects.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:46 AM on July 30, 2010


I have a son, so I want to be wrong. If I knew five years ago what I know now, I might not have had him. I hope he gets to have a future.

Me, too. And I'm going to try to stay alive as long as possible, and do everything in my power to see to it that my son does, too.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:48 AM on July 30, 2010


No we're not. Don't be foolish.

I don't mean in 20 to 30 years; I'm talking about 100 to 200 years. I've talked about this(GW and related catastrophes) in another thread so I'm not going to rehash. While i agree that it is indeed a possibility that we may be facing some severe problems in the near future and may even go extinct(a very unlikely possibility in the near term) it's not like life won't go on. The earth has experienced way more catastrophic periods of climate change and life survived. I don't see what's so foolish about being optimistic. But carry on with the doom and gloom knock yourselves out.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:47 AM on July 30, 2010


So... Is there any chance we could could counteract these effects and induce phytoplankton blooms with the right combinations of nutrients into the water?

Yes.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:51 AM on July 30, 2010


Well, let's hope we can direct enough public attention to the reality of these problems now, then. Because otherwise we're going to keep quarreling over nonsense until there's not enough time to reverse whatever is killing off the oceans. I don't give a damn about who makes money, or which political camp "wins." Realistically, these problems aren't really even visible on most people's radar. I seriously doubt we're going to see any kind of political or social breakthrough in the next 20--30 years to make even large scale environmental engineering projects a reality. Realistically, it seems to me we have less than five years left to figure out a definitive course of action and to begin taking action on a large enough scale to do any good. But we've got many, many different competing priorities that seem to trump that possibility.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:43 AM on July 30, 2010


To be fair, Religious American hasn't yet weighed in on the science, so it's not yet undeniable.
posted by hell toupee at 11:58 AM on July 30, 2010


No, no, no. You were supposed to convince me I'm still wrong to fret despite the mountains of contrary evidence.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, us in developed nations with cars and computers and air conditioning and running water... we're not really so vulnerable as all that. Life will get harder, but I seriously doubt you're looking at Mad Max post apocalypse style living for your son.

The most vulnerable are those who have always been the most vulnerable; subsistence farmers and subsistence fishers, living on the coasts, already barely surviving.

(This power and vulnerability disparity is why nothing will get done.)
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 1:18 PM on July 30, 2010


I seriously doubt you're looking at Mad Max

The destruction of the environment / end of cheap oil is going to look a lot more like District 9 or Robocop 2 than Mad Max, IMO

The rich & well-connected will still get by and still wear expensive clothes in glass towers. It's just that the rest of us will be eating pet food in trash-heap shacks / burned-out ghettos while dodging heavily militarized police forces.
posted by hamida2242 at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2010


hamida2242, if you have running water and regular internet access, and you know people who are dieting because it's too easy to gain weight, you are rich and well-connected. I don't think that you or your children will experience that kind of doomsday scenario.

I'm absolutely not saying that the destruction of the environment isn't a problem. But I'm saying that the kind of effects that you're talking about are going to happen *first* in areas where the infrastructure is already very vulnerable. In the U.S. and most of Europe, in Australia and Japan, we are already living at the tippy-top of privilege. It'll take a lot to sink us. This is what I'm frustrated with; I think that those policy makers who oppose spending on energy efficient technology development and oppose greenhouse gas restrictions know that the U.S. isn't going to be hit that hard, that soon. People in other parts of the world are going to die, first, killed by (primarily!) American largesse, before anything will change.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:32 PM on August 3, 2010


« Older In the year 2182 -- 172 years time -- there's a 1 ...  |  Beans are bullets. Potatoes ar... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments