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Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950 (2010) (scientificamerican.com)
138 points by yusufaytas 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

The referenced paper is from 2010. Do you suppose that the reason you haven't been hearing more about this recently is that it's just wrong?

In 2011, this comment disputing it was published:


The paper was discussed on HN earlier, as part of the discussion of


I have a comment there pointing out that if you actually look at the data in the paper, there is really no evidence of a decline.

The authors of the 2010 paper did follow up with another in 2014[1] so "heard nothing since disputed in 2011 - its just wrong" is at least, inaccurate.

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S007966111...

>This work builds upon an earlier analysis (Boyce et al., 2010) by taking published criticisms into account, and by using recalibrated data, and novel analysis methods.

Good counterpoint. I upvoted you and radford-neal.

Having looked at both papers now, I think that the 2014 followup confirmed the direction of the trend (downward), but it looks like it also significantly reduced the magnitude of the trend.

Look at figure 2b in the 2010 paper and figure 1a in the 2014 paper. They both show "Rate of Chl change (mg m–3 yr–1)" on a grid of cells covering the world's oceans. But the scale in the 2010 paper went from -0.40 to 0.40. In the 2014 paper the extremes of the scale are only -0.10 and 0.10. It looks like re-analysis indicated less dramatic rates of change both in the cells showing increase and those showing decrease.

But climate change alarmism sells so well.


Please don't submit comments saying that HN is turning into Reddit. It's a semi-noob illusion, as old as the hills.


[2010], here's the paper referenced in the article: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature09268

I knew we had fucked up the oceans with plastics and overfishing, but I didn't know that phytoplankton was down as well, at such a scale. Per TFA, it provided 50% of the Earth's photosynthesis (in 2010). If it kept on dwindling that fast, that share is even lower now (down ~45%, with a half-life of 81 years, assuming the decline was constant between 1950 and 2010). This is also freaky knowing that it is the base of the food chain in the oceans...

I don't have any idea of the amount of oxygen that's cycled each year vs the total amount in the atmosphere... I suppose there's no immediate danger on that end, even if it were to drop to an even lower point before recovering, otherwise we'd have heard of this more often...

I keep coming back to the idea that over fishing --> pulling micro nutrients from the ocean --> plankton collapse.

Not only that, but the oceans are already at capacity with CO2 absorption and now with the plankton collapse the oxygenation of the ocean is also being reduced. The entire ocean ecosystem is going to suffocate, species after species.

Not necessarily. First of all ocean is not a continuous; is layered. Water masses sink and travel. I bet that we could find artic water (rich in oxigen) in the african coast for example. Oxygen content is strongly related with salinity and temperature.

Plankton is collapsing all the time in fact. Then they recover extremely fast.


Please don't break the site guidelines by posting flamebait and getting involved in flamewars.


Yeah right, children, innocents and wildlife deserve an extinction event.

Sorry but what a silly idea that is.

Please don't break the site guidelines by replying to flamebait and getting involved in flamewars.


wildlife will do very well, maybe not the charismatic stuff, but overall.

Yeah, not the big animals, but the little ones -- like plankton for example.

... Oh wait.

Anaerobic bacteria perhaps? Admittedly not counted as animals.


creddit 26 days ago [flagged]

I don’t think there’s any world in which “the news” is opinion about who deserves what. That’s opinion. “The news” is fact based. Your statement was opinion based and your reaction comically lacking in self awareness.

Plastics and overfishing are the least of our worries (though not to be dismissed) -- we know how to stop those (though we might find the means to do so unpalatable).

The elephant in the room (whale in the fish pond?) is ocean acidification which will continue to increase for at least a century or so even if we stop using any and all fossil fuels immediately (and how likely does that look?)

Anything that causes mass die-offs that lead to loss of biodiversity is a cause for major concern. The system can be forced to crash multiple different ways. Currently it looks like the warm water heat waves have been killing corals en masse, which leads to collapse of shallow-water ecosystems, which is pancaking everything else. But plastics and overfishing are body blows being delivered at the same time as jabs and uppercuts.

Make no mistake, everything is interconnected. The recent uptick in gray whales dying off with signs that look like starvation is absolutely connected to the loss of coral reefs worldwide.

We need an all-front defense of the oceans, and I don't think we should pick winners or ignore major, major problems as somehow "solved" in our imaginations.

The really scary part is that phytoplankton produce 50-85% of the oxygen on Earth.

Unfortunately, steadily declining populations of oceanic microorganisms don't pack the same kind of viral social media star power Brazilian forest fires do.

I am not associated with any of the following, but there are organizations attempting to build devices that will bring colder, nutrient rich waters to the surface to cause phytoplankton blooms (or use the same nutrients for seaweed farming):

1) ocean-based.com 2) http://www.climatefoundation.org/

We should of course do everything we can to stop emitting carbon. But projects like these may an important part in our future.

I don't think it's the carbon dioxide that is killing the phytoplankton, they probably love it like most plants love a little extra CO2.

I imagine it's other chemicals like herbicides making their way into the oceans and killing the tiny plants.

The general problem is that the warmer waters are trapping the cooler waters below. Upwelling is an attempt to fix it!

It's the temperature, not the CO2. I have fresh water shrimp and some fish. If you raise the temperature over 30°C, less oxygen dissolves into the water and there's not enough for the critters to breathe. It's basically asphyxiation. Labyrinth fish are adapted, since they can breathe air as well, but they do it merely for survival, they too become stressed and die after a while. Also some types of algae grow faster when the water is warmer. More algae = more O2 uptake during daytime.

A little extra CO2 sure, but the rising CO2 in the oceans is actually changing the PH balance.


> The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world's oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

So does this mean there's been a significant drop in oxygen (produced)? And if so, how much?

If 100% of phytoplankton produces 50% of the oxygen and 100% is now 60% that mean 50% of oxygen is down to 30%. In other words, sans a drop in non phytoplankton, total oxygen that was 100% is not 80%?

Wouldn't we feel that?

That's oxygen produced, not oxygen total. Dropping to 80% yearly production isn't going to remove the already stockpiled oxygen in the system, so how quickly we notice is going to depend on how much oxygen is being "removed" from the system at the same time.

From a different paper-

> Oxygen concentrations are currently declining at roughly 19 per meg per year, or about 4 ppm per year. One "per meg" indicates one molecule out of 1,000,000 oxygen molecules, or roughly one molecule in 4.8 million molecules of air.

Total atmospheric oxygen is 195000 ppm, so 4 ppm isn't much. But if it's a consistent trend, it is a little concerning.

That's pretty amazing, so in essence losing 40% of the phyloplankton is like us losing 50% of all trees over the last 50 years without even realizing it.

Alot more is going to happen without us realizing it unless we take action fast...


The idea of a study covering all oceans to find if "phytoplancton" (thousands of species) is vanishing is just ridiculously difficult. There are strong stationalities, different for each species. There are competition and predation, there are different water masses... In the same zone you can find void areas and reunion areas.

You would need huge resources and deploy a really fine "mesh" of stations for a very long time to study that.

Is the job of oceanographers, and do this all the time at local small scale. But extrapolating to a global scale is a really ambitious project, prone to came with the wrong answers.

Not to mention that aren't even doing plankton taxonomy. Is a collection of secchi disks data. To point to just one of the major problems with the study, Secchi disks aren't used at night normally. Let suppose that we would visit google headquarters at 4am for example, we could wrongly assume that is a mostly deserted area. Is the same problem.

Wouldn't this also mean the amount of CO2 processed was also down significantly?

Are we doomed? It seems like we might be doomed

Not at all, handwaving, technological breakthroughs, handwaving, renewables, handwaving, mars colonies, and we'll be alright...

I'd guess like any environment if the species population (humans) exceeds the carrying capacity of the land (earth) then there will be a die back.

TL;DR: Yup, we're doomed.

Read or listen to David Wallace-Wells' Uninhabitable Earth[1] and/or Jem Bendell's Deep Adaptation[2] and decide for yourself. Both a couple of years old, neither will leave you the slightest bit optimistic.

[1] http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-...

[2] https://jembendell.com/category/deep-adaptation/

David Wallace wells isn't your best source. His work has been criticized for misrepresenting the science by many reputable climate scientists, many of which are easy to find online. It is clear in his response to being called too alarmist that he chooses to stretch the truth.

Whether or not his tactic is ethical is worth debate perhaps, but whether his picture is reflective of what climate scientists believe is an answered question (its not). The situation is bad, but we need not become defeatist, lest we give up entirely.

Some climate scientists criticised him, an apparently similar number have expressed support.

> "It is clear in his response to being called too alarmist that he chooses to stretch the truth"

I think you misrepresent. He's made it clear he's a journalist who made effort to understand and present the science. There were a few mistakes as notably pointed out by Mann. Hardly "choosing to stretch the truth".

Given the IPCC's consistently conservative view, that encourages a too little, too late response, I would rather an excessively pessimistic view pushed us to respond "too soon". After all if some tipping points are passed, bringing it back from the brink will be just about impossible... If we overreact we get clean energy sooner.

Events in the two years since seem to reinforce the pessimistic view. Sea level rise tracks the worst case IPCC estimates. Etc.

> being called too alarmist

I've never heard of any of his material, but is it really possibly to be too alarmist in our current state? I mean honestly, most of the world doesn't understands the magnitude and gravity of the events taking place and the runaway train that we're on.

If we take on defeatist language, we will be defeated. Scaring people into inaction by accepting defeat isn't a productive path forward.

Earth has always been uninhabitable for the most part. It’s only technology that allows us to live where we are (unless you live in the great Rift Valley). And it will be technology that saves us in the future.

Edit: downvoted for technology optimism on this site?? Please explain.

>Earth has always been uninhabitable for the most part.

Which is neither here nor there. We care for the part where its habitable and we're on it, not for the part when it was molten lava...

>It’s only technology that allows us to live where we are (unless you live in the great Rift Valley)

Not really, we've lived in most of the places we live now and had civilizations 2000 and 5000 and 10000 years ago. And animals more or less like us lived there far more.

Technology like fire, stone and iron tools helped made things more palatable, but it's not "only technology" that allows us to live in Africa (heck, tons of tribes lived there even 50-100 years ago with little/no technology), Asia, Europe, etc, and in no way it's only modern technology.

>Edit: downvoted for technology optimism on this site?? Please explain.

Perhaps people care more for scientific claims and concrete technologies, and less for magic thinking and faith, which "technological optimism" is, as if we have some certain contract with the universe to find just the right technologies, in the right time, to save us...

I didn't downvote you but I would be tempted to.

Imagine you were standing on the sidelines watching Notre Dame burning down and made a similar statement. Meanwhile a fire hydrant and fire hose were nearby, unused. And twenty bystanders like you were standing there facing the other way, unaware, chatting about trivia while (unknowingly) leaking gasoline out their butts right onto it. Your comment would be massively misplaced and probably overall harmful in the grand scheme of things.

We need to fight this.

Pretty sure what I’m saying is to use the dang fire hydrant in addition to removing unnecessary wood from the cathedral.

Humans already colonised most of the Earth in the Paleolithic, using the minimal technology of hunter-gatherers.

Yes, we’ve always used technology to alter our environments and we’ll need to continue to do so.

The explanations in the doomsday articles here assume no technological progress.

We’ve only put minimal effort into geo-engineering solutions, but even with that minimal effort there’s been some good ideas, such as planting 130 trees per person [1], olovine rocks on beaches [2], and basalt dusting of farmland [3].

[1] https://m.phys.org/news/2019-07-climate-trillion-trees.html [2] https://projectvesta.org/ [3] https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/02/spreading-crushed-ro...

>The explanations in the doomsday articles here assume no technological progress.

If part of your house is on fire, it will burn completely in, say, 5 hours, and you don't have the technology to stop the fire, assuming that "all will be OK" because you'll invent something in the meantime is idiotic.

It's also not science (science is actively working on a problem). Optimism of this kind is just wishful thinking that happens to concern scientific breakthroughs.

Soberly speaking:

- We might not find the necessary breakthroughs in time, same way we still don't have AI, human-like robot servants, flying cars, cold fusion, miracle drugs, and all kinds of other stuff we'd "surely have" or that's always "20 years in the future".

- If we find some breakthrough, it might need too much time, energy, resources to put into action. There's no guarantee from the universe that any technology we find is also immediately (or timely) applicable.

- A solution might have downsides (e.g social, economic, etc) for which there might be no consensus, political will, easy way to sell to masses or easy way to convince elites...

- A solution might require coordination across nations, which might be the inverse of what we will get (every country for itself, wars over diminishing resources, and so on). In fact already we see rifts into global coordination (from the China trade war, to Brexit and so on).

All of those are real concerns, it's not just "technology will save us", as if it owes us...

>there’s been some good ideas, such as planting 130 trees per person [1], olovine rocks on beaches [2], and basalt dusting of farmland [3].


Not “technology will save us” - human creativity can save us. It has in the past and survival will require our creativity infinitely into the future.

You may laugh but let’s tslk again in 30 years. When avg temps rise more than the 1 degree they have so far, political attitudes will change.

Overpopulation prophesy from 50 years ago. At the time 1 in 4 people globally were in famine and author prophecized it would only get worse. Instead global population has doubled while worldwide hunger reduced to 1 in 10, due to creativity and technology. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/book-incited-world...

>Not “technology will save us” - human creativity can save us. It has in the past and survival will require our creativity infinitely into the future.

Well, when discussing practical solutions to problems, creativity/technology is more or less same thing.

>You may laugh but let’s tslk again in 30 years. When avg temps rise more than the 1 degree they have so far, political attitudes will change.

They could very well change for the inverse: people/countries being more selfish, fiercely fighting to save their own (and why not? In a world of fewer resources / access to good stuff / areas with declining climate, that could be a wining move).

"Human creativity" didn't save the huge Babylonian empire from being reduced to dust, the huge Roman empire from declining (and entering centuries of "dark ages"), and so on. And those were just political issues, not political + environmental, like today.

And of course there's also the inverse argument: we haven't signed any contract that something that worked in the past (e.g. creativity solving some problem) will work in the future too.

Alternatively, there may be no political progress and the technological ideas never get implemented (or only when it's too late to do any good).

No, we’ve been on the brink of annihilation many times and have found a way through. We cannot predict what new knowledge will be discovered to solve these problems. But we must keep trying.

When have we been on the brink of annihilation before?

There’s the multiple population bottlenecks in our DNA history [1]. The close calls in world wars and cold wars. Etc.

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2842629/

The cold wars were called that because they never actually became war.

And the world war's combined impact on global populations was only a couple of percentage points.

Neither remotely qualifies as being on the brink of annihilation.

The soviet naval officer who prevented WWIII: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/you-and-almo...

The British government on the brink of capitulating to Hitler: https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/the-may...

The Allies and not Hitler getting the atomic bomb. Examples abound just in the past few generations.


rumors of this were spread in certain environmentalist communities in the late 1980s, with less certainty, and were widely accompanied by dread, sorrow and a feeling of being overwhelmed. The gut-sense was that toxics, plastics, human activity and at that time, missing ozone layer, had broken or was about to break, some balance point in the top few feet of saltwater, where a huge amount of the vital activity lie.

Now, thirty years later, the ability to measure and predict is much greater, such that science literature can put a finer point on things. Yet the overall pollution activity (minus the success of the ozone layer repletion, worse with single-use plastics) continues.

Like the therapist says, you own your reaction to this.. hard to dismiss...

coincidentally I watched Our Planet High Seas episode today. They showed how crucial Phytoplankton is. No matter where you are in world the air you are breathing is somewhere coming from these microscopic plants. This fact made me stop and think even these tiny organisms contributing to make earth habitable, What we do as human beings ?

This should be more troubling than dwindling forest and marshland.

Are there any teams trying to genetically engineer phytoplankton to deal with these changes in ocean conditions?

Who is going to pay them to do that extremely expensive work?

I really wish I never had to even think of that question, but it is a serious one.

Capitalism certainly has it's drawbacks...

Not in the lakes near me. These are so damn green right now...

You know there are a lot of people who think we're going to die from global warming but I always figured the food web will just collapse. Like one year all the harvests stop working. Could be the missing bees and insects or the soil exhaustion or the heat. Or just that plastic is in the water supply. Heck, we just found out a few days ago that larger amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere actually makes rice less nutritious. But by then the reasons won't matter and people will just start killing each other over food.

> I always figured the food web will just collapse.

I fear this too, but it won't be so dramatic. On geologic and evolutionary timescales, it will be like a flash. On human timescales, it might be a decade or a century. From our perspective it will look a lot more like a ratcheting-down of the food web, as loss of biodiversity will lead to pancaking of layers down. There will be booms and busts, as the ecological niche filled by one organism is vacated by its sudden collapse and a temporary resurgence of some aggressive species fills that gap, until that poorly adapted monoculture succumbs to something else. In a sense, the whole thing is going to come down in spasms, and we'll be arguing the whole way into the grave, because it's so complicated that gaslighters and deniers will always be able to point to something that looks like recovery, but really isn't.

I am long past accepting this. The question in my mind is really, how big is the crater left by humanity going to be?

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