Are we going to lose all of our phytoplankton and die?

Today we’re talking about a project in which scientists are studying how things that live in the ocean are affected by what people do on land.

News source: Bangor Daily News, “Maine study finds potentially disastrous threat to single-celled plants that support all life”

The original science:
Press release from the place where the scientists work: “Evidence from 12-Year Study Links Ecosystem Changes in the Gulf of Maine with Climate Change”
Peer-reviewed study: Step-changes in the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the Gulf of Maine, as documented by the GNATS time series (Balch et al. 2012 MEPS)

I first saw this: at Shakesville (and a followup at Fineness and Accuracy)

Helpful vocab:
phytoplankton – anything that you need a microscope to see that lives in water and uses sunlight energy to make food (I totally love phytoplankton! See a picture of one cool kind of phytoplankton over at National Geographic.)

chlorophyll – a kind of biological molecule that receives sunlight energy and passes it along to other molecules for photosynthesis; there are different kinds of chlorophyll, but mostly it’s the stuff that makes plants look green to us

photosynthesis – how organisms capture energy from light and convert it into a form of chemical energy, normally stored for later, which we call food

Why this is news:
Me being snarky: Some scientists just got their paper published. These scientists live and work nearby where this newspaper is printed and sold. We scientists find it easier to convince Congress to fund our research if people care about it enough to write about it in the paper, and newspapers want to stay in business, so they sometimes write stuff to make it sound more exciting to the average person than it actually is.

Me being serious: it’s news because the scientists found something pretty fascinating: stuff that’s literally washing off of the coast of Maine (dirt, fertilizer, and such) may be causing some of the phytoplankton that live in the ocean just off of Maine to grow more slowly. They’re stressed out by what we’re doing, in a bigger way than we understood.

What I want to clear up:
This sounds really scary, right? It sounds like all of the little tiny things that live in the ocean that get eaten by fish and whales and things we like (and things we eat) are going to die, soon, and there’s no stopping it, and soon we will have no fish and starve to death. (Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville hinted at another thing that phytoplankton do that’s cool and important, besides being food, and I am pleased that she said this: they give off oxygen that we need to breathe when they make their food. Turns out that marine phytoplankton produce more oxygen than the rainforests. Amazing, huh?)

Since this is the first discussion I’m presenting, I want to take a moment to make a point about science reporting. It can be hard for those of us who do science everyday to tell reporters how awesome it is without things getting fuzzy. We’re under a lot of pressure these days to make it possible for our science to be something that someone else can make money with, or that saves the world. And frankly, like anything that you spend a lot of time with, things that aren’t cool or earth-shattering to the outside world are the biggest things in our lives. Your cousin graduating from high school isn’t exactly special to the rest of us on a day when a major oil spill occurs or 50 people die in a bombing or what have you, but to you? It’s totally awesome and probably the biggest thing on your calendar. (It would be for me!) And – here’s the important part – those “minor” things are often newsworthy or should be shared, even if they’re not huge terrible disasters or amazing miracles, and sometimes our attempts to share our stories end up being more elaborate than is strictly necessary.

Dr. Brainiac’s scientific two cents:
The scientists set out to study what’s going on in the Gulf of Maine at a microscopic level. They measured how much chlorophyll was being made by the phytoplankton, and noticed a recent drop – which suggests that there’s less photosynthesis, and if there’s less photosynthesis, there’s less oxygen produced and fewer plankton for fish to eat. That could be important for understanding how many fish there are for us to eat. I totally get why the reporter who wrote about this would think this is serious stuff – fish are very important to Maine’s economy!

At the same time, they noticed that the ocean water on the coast was getting warmer and less salty. Plus, they showed that the water was harder for light to get through, which means the plankton are probably not getting the sunlight they need to do photosynthesis. This is pretty interesting and important stuff! While I don’t agree that we’re all going to die very soon because of these findings, it’s impressive that the scientists saw that the ocean near them was getting to be a worse place for phytoplankton to live and do photosynthesis.

Scientific questions I would ask next: is the same pattern seen in other places? I’d ask this because I would want to know if the stuff washing off of the land and into the ocean is the same everywhere, and if maybe some places are becoming better homes for phytoplankton. I’d also ask whether the number of phytoplankton was changing, or the kind, and not just the amount of chlorophyll. For sure, I think that the scientists showed that there are climate and ocean changes that are affecting life in the ocean, and that definitely is worth more study.

Final thoughts:
I think Christopher Cousins did a pretty good job with his article, although I think the headline writer was too dramatic. Mr. Cousins definitely picked the perfect quote to end his article, which I think is good to take away with you: “People shouldn’t freak out about this but they should think very carefully about the long-term changes that we humans are making,” [Dr. Balch] said.

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