🌊 Save Plankton, Undo Climate Change
Climate and human survival is directly linked to the fate of the ocean. With CO2 reduction we will not make it, if we do not know how to stop ocean acidification.
👋 Hi, Ed & Chris here. In the Atlas of the Long Now, we explore our rapidly changing world through a historical-futuristic lens. The here and now is a moment that spans centuries.
Save Plankton, Undo Climate Change
Long-term thinking can be a frightening exercise. This is especially so when thinking about the climate crisis and the ongoing collapse of biodiversity. Today we discuss an oceanic research report whose possible implications are, quite frankly, terrifying. Although the report also gives a very clear path forwards.
Understanding humanity’s effect on earth’s biosphere is incredibly difficult. It is a complex and dynamic system. Powered by hidden feedback loops and unexpected phenomena. But sometimes we overlook the obvious. It seems oceanic life, and the role it plays in eath’s systems is one of those biospheric blind spots. And a rather surprising one, considering the oceans are about 70% of our planet’s surface.
But the report is not about the water itself, it’s about what lives there. Climate change and biodiversity loss due to pollution are often considered separate problems that are to be addressed separately by policymakers. This report strongly binds the two together. Saving the underwater wilderness is key to countering climate change.
We found this out when we read the paper Climate regulating ocean plants and animals are being destroyed by toxic chemicals and plastics, accelerating our path toward ocean pH 7.95 in 25 years which will devastate humanity (PDF) from the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) project.
The authors, Howard Dryden, Diane Duncan, and Caroline Duncan collected and compared disparate studies on the state of the ocean and looked at how the ocean might continue to evolve over the next century. They themselves specialize in marine biology, water purification, and closed aquatic life support systems. They also did their own research on the Equatorial Atlantic Ocean.
They were shocked to find out how poorly the foundation of our planetary food chain is doing: plankton is dying out.
In their analysis, they argue that oceans play a huge role in the planetary biosphere and thus climate, but that this role is undermined by the rapid extinction of marine life. With positively alarming consequences for the climate.
They trace the dying out of plankton to the chemical revolution around 01950 when plastics and chemicals began flooding the environment, increasingly becoming part of its ecosystems and food chains. The introduction of these toxic substances in the biosphere has created a vicious cycle with catastrophic consequences, which could undo all attempts to reduce CO2 emissions and bring them to zero.
What follows is a small summary of the main points of GOES' piece. It is not a happy story, but thinking through this doom scenario does highlight the outsized role that oceanic life, in particular plankton, can play. Both for better and for worse.
Let's start with what is going wrong now.
🤮 Almost all of the toxic substances we use end up in the ocean. Microplastics, particulate matter, PFAS (undegradable), cosmetics, pesticides, and drugs run off through groundwater, rivers, sewage, and industrial wastewater until it becomes part of the world’s oceans. The GOES report reports that as much as 80% of the world's wastewater goes untreated into the world's oceans.
🧽 Microplastics are chemical sponges. Many toxic chemicals behave oily and stick to microplastics. Those microplastics become little poison bombs that are then consumed by plankton. Via the plankton, they work their way up the food chain and eventually end up on our plates and in our bodies. So the theoretical basis on which most chemical and waste regulations are based - "the solution to pollution is dilution" - doesn't work, because it wrongly assumes that substances disappear in large bodies of water. They do not. They attach to other substances, creating higher concentrations that can enter the food chain.
🎣 Less marine life = More acidification = Even less marine life. Since
01950, we have lost 50% of marine life. This die-off sets in motion a vicious cycle: The less phytoplankton there is, the less CO2 it absorbs from the atmosphere, the more CO2 is absorbed by ocean water, where it turns into carbon dioxide, which makes the ocean more acidic (the pH dropped from 8.2 to 8.05 over the past 70 years), which makes it increasingly difficult for plankton and shellfish, crustaceans and corals to survive. Dying coral reefs are a sign of this. Ultimately, this cycle knocks the bottom out of the current marine ecosystems and thus out of the planet's ecosystem.
🦠 A toxic biosphere gets more space to grow. When this cycle is not broken, the endpoint could be a genuine doomsday scenario. When oceanic ecosystems absorb less and less CO2, accelerating global warming, oxygen levels in the atmosphere, which are already steadily declining, will fall even faster. Next to toxic oceans we’ll then also have to deal with an increasingly toxic atmosphere. A place where so-called dinoflagellates become more dominant, making the atmosphere even more uninhabitable because these creatures emit substances that are toxic to humans.
The doomsday scenario outlined above is reflected in this (very readable) paper, and can be summarized in the graph below.
Regardless of how fast it will go (the graph is based on the RCP 8.5 climate scenario, which is considered a rather extreme and unlikely scenario), the crux lies in the fact that reducing the runoff of chemicals and microplastics is not yet seen as a top priority in the climate issue.
Politicians and policymakers suffer from tunnel vision. The focus is too much on climate when what is at stake is something much more fundamental - the biosphere; life as we know it. They must focus not only on reducing greenhouse gasses but also on reducing chemical and plastic pollution.
After all, our oxygenated atmosphere is maintained by planetary ecosystems, mainly marine life, with the star player being plankton, which is dying out.
But all is not lost.
The study also offers a path out of our predicament. Indeed, plankton is at the root of a solution that can work faster and on a larger scale than we could achieve on land.
The Ocean as Climate Maker
Many people think that the Amazon and the other rainforests are "the lungs of our earth" and that planting millions of trees is the way to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere and sequester it. This is a myth. Well, sort of. Restoring the rainforests is obviously still a very good idea. It will suck enormous amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and it will restore their super-diverse ecosystems.
But we should focus solely on planting trees.
Half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by photosynthesis from phytoplankton and according to the study phytoplankton also absorbs another 60-90% of all CO2 as it eventually sinks to the seafloor via the ocean's food web. Saving the rainforests is thus not enough. We must also save the ocean. And time is running out.
Since 01950 we have lost about 50% of the CO2-absorbing capacity of phytoplankton and other marine life due to pollution. But this ability can be restored, and much much faster than with increasing biomass on land.
Doubling the land-based biomass of plants and animals is absolutely important, but would take about 60 years. In the oceans, however, most marine life is 1mm or smaller, and many of these marine plants and animals double their mass in a matter of hours or days. So the regeneration and restoration of marine and other wetland ecosystems, such as marshes and mangroves, pays off quickly because they grow quickly and because they sink dying biomass (and thus carbon) rather than sending it back into the atmosphere through decay processes (like autumn leaves now).
The GOES team even argues that if we hadn't lost half of the marine life in the last 70 years, we wouldn't have climate change today. In other words, if we can reverse this trend and regenerate marine ecosystems worldwide, our chances of averting climate change and the collapse of the planetary biosphere increase significantly.
So what do we need to do?
Like with greenhouse gasses the solution is quite straightforward, but not simple. We need to move toward an overall end to all forms of pollution. Everything that is toxic, ecologically harmful, and/or not biodegradable should no longer be allowed to enter our environment. All water must become clean, clear, and drinkable. Because in the end, all water streams to the ocean.
Dilution as solution to pollution is still the dominant mindset when it comes to toxins and waste. Laws and regulations surrounding pollutants are all based on threshold values. That obviously has to change. Emission and discharge of pollutants have to go to zero. When we start doing that, combined with protection and regeneration, nature becomes a companion in the fight against climate.
What would that mean?
💩 Water treatment - Our sewage and wastewater systems must stop discharging bad and untreated water into rivers and seas. Eventually, all these systems need to start delivering drinking quality water and process. Residuals must be processed in a different way so that medicines and other harmful substances do not enter the environment. For example, much sewage sludge is now used as a kind of fertilizer on the land; making biochar from this would already be an improvement.
🧹 Regenerative Agriculture - Everything that exits a factory, farm, or any other business or household should be ecologically harmless or regenerative. This means getting rid of pesticides and abolishing industrial livestock production. All food production must be nature-inclusive and regenerative or decoupled, like reactor-based microorganisms growing our food. Think; cultured meat to proteins from solar energy. See also our future scenario: 🦠 The Great Reversal.
🧸 Materials transition - All products - from toys to computers to medicine to art to clothes to car tires - must be made with natural or biodegradable materials. We must shift from petrochemical processes to biochemical processes. We must explore the principles of green chemistry. Everything we do must be nature-friendly.
Of course, such a transition will not happen just because it’s needed. In fact, it’s extremely difficult. More difficult even than reducing greenhouse gasses. It affects all value chains and it will affect all our routines. And if there is anything resilient to change its value chains and human routines.
This change has to be fought for. It requires hard choices, imagination, stubborn perseverance, and loads of solidarity. Most people in the world survive on plastic-wrapped foods and drinks and live in cities without waste treatment. And as of yet, there are no biodegradable alternatives for these kinds of plastics.
But fortunately, there are many projects and initiatives that are already addressing these issues. Here are a couple of really imaginative ones:
💧Think of Li An Phoa's plea for Drinkable Rivers.
🦭The Embassy of the North Sea where they are exploring how the North Sea and life in it can be its own.
🌊 The Earth Law Center which is exploring how the entire ocean could become a legal entity, and how to work for ocean rights.
⚖️ In Britain, the Good Law Project is attempting to mount a first lawsuit against the discharge of sewage into the sea.
🌍 Perhaps plankton might be our perfect geoengineering partner. Feeding plankton blooms with iron sulfate, for example, will absorb a lot of CO2 in a short period of time. Incidentally, there is also controversy surrounding this idea, although it has been proven to work (see link above).
🐋 Radical Ocean Futures explores through science fiction prototyping what the future of the ocean could look like, both positive and negative.
And, finally, should you want to know what you can do yourself: the GOES Project website has practical tips and tops.
❤️ Ed & Chris
PS - 🤿 In case you haven't had enough of the ocean, watch the wonderful docu Becoming Cousteau ( on Disney+) about Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s life and work that spans exactly the period from before to after the chemical revolution of the 1950s. A shift that quite literally marked his life. (trailer)