climate change conservation environment science

Plankton, oxygen, and how little we really know about our planet

A phytoplankton bloom from space

A few weeks ago I read a book called Seasick, which looked at the effects of climate change on the oceans. In it, I learned that plankton create 50% of the world’s oxygen and are a major carbon sink, but that we don’t know how warming waters and rising Ph levels in the seas will affect these tiny but essential creatures. In fact, plankton are so overlooked that Alanna Mitchell interviews a marine biologist who wanted to study them for a dissertation, and was told they weren’t important enough.

That research has now been done however, and the July issue of the Nature investigates the effects of climate change on the plankton. It shows that plankton levels have declined by 40% since 1950.

The Dalhousie University study compiles almost half a million readings of sea transparency between 1899 and 2008, which measure the amount of algae in the water. It has declined in 8 out of the 10 locations, at the rate of around 1% a year. The decline matches the rise in temperature, although as usual with climate research, the exact nature of the correlation is hard to determine, and nobody knows what effects such a decline will have.

It shows once again how delicately balanced the earth’s ecosystems are, and there’s a strange irony to the interconnections here. The plankton numbers are falling as the earth warms, driven in part by our burning of oil, and much of our oil is ancient plankton.

But more than that, I just find the whole story astonishing. The organism responsible for every other breath we take has declined by 40%, and we only just noticed, and we don’t know what it means. Our ignorance of the planet we live on apparently knows no bounds.


  1. Thank you Jeremy.

    I very much appreciate reading your Blogs.

    I understand that plankton supply more than 50% of Earth’s oxygen. Plankton also supply the ENTIRE marine eco system that forms the basis of OUR food chain.

    When plankton are in trouble, WE are in trouble.

    The Gulf oil leak and resulting threats; resources being used faster than they can reproduce; projected economic collapse, extreme weather, global human suffering, SIGNAL it is time for humans to EVOLve our consciousness ‘FULLY’. Full consciousness

    1. REASONS how cause and effect are related – our Soul is the effect [Power] causing a result
    2. understand change [change is natural; growth is optional]
    3. be InSightful – live from the inside out [humanity is Soul, each a unique spark of Consciousness also called God, unconditional Love, Quantum Hologram or other Name]

    Our choices are self discovery or self destruction. Link to my Blog Soul Repair 2010

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. This IS a crucially important issue and a major factor of Earth Systems Science – and believe me, it is not overlooked by Marine biologists. Of course not. Plankton hass been studied in detail for many decades, but probably not as much as it should. At the same time it is notoriously difficult to study because it consists of a myriad of different tiny species stretched out over the entire aquasphere – and so in 3 dimensions.

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