Oxygen-Depletion and Ocean Fatigue Less Plastic for Oceans?
Oxygen-Depletion and Ocean Fatigue
Less Plastic for Oceans?
For a number of reasons I fear that oceans are losing energy—developing chronic fatigue, so to speak. Why should we care whether or not oceans are getting tired? Oceans are the planet’s lungs. All life on earth depends on oceanic breathing. So, if oceans continue to sicken—and get sicker with passing years—people, animals, and plants will also sicken faster—and to deeper degrees with time—as well. This is not a far-fetched idea, not for me at least.
The health of oceans depends on its population of energy-producing cells called phytoplankton (“phytos” for short). It follows that planetary health depends on the integrity and well-being of phytos, which are under incremental threats, some natural and others man-made. A new report published in Nature on 28 July 2010 brings more bad news. The researchers found a strong correlation between the records of chlorophyll concentrations in ocean waters, climate changes, and in oceanic thermal conditions. There was a significant long-term decrease in chlorophyll concentrations for eight of the ten ocean basins, as well as for the global aggregate. Notably, the estimated global rate of decline of biomass was about one percent of the global median per year. It is also noteworthy in this context that phytos account for approximately half the production of all organic matter on Earth. Will these alarming rates of decrease continue in coming decades? Time alone will tell.
What might be the elements causing the phyto loss? Specifically, how might plastic and tar dumped into oceans—trillions of billions of water bottles, synthetic materials, oil spills, and others—worsen phyto loss? What might be the long-term consequences of phyto loss on oceanic scales? To provide a frame of reference for considering these questions, below I offer my poem about images of the gushing geyser of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a brief review of planetary energy systems.
In ocean’s toxic ooze,
A dolphin, the ocean’s canary,
Circled like an inmate
In an asylum.
How do I breathe oil?
A turtle asked.
How do I eat tar?
an urchin choked.
How do I unglue my wings,
A black bird convulsed.
Then Earth’s belly stabbed
As a drunken medic might,
cut open a soldier’s bowels,
never trained to repair
gaping and festering wounds.
fumed and putrid,
old equilibrium busted,
phobic life proliferated.
People sickened and suffered.
Its crust gapping,
the Earth heaved.
the ocean seethed.
demented officials survived.
Two Systems of Oceanic Energetics
Life evolved in oceans and then extended to land masses. Nature evolved two divergent systems of bioenergetics in oceans: a “top-ocean” solar-driven system and a “deep-ocean” sulfur-based system. Sunlight penetrates ocean waters for only three to four hundred feet, limiting photosynthetic energy generation largely to such depths, which is designated as the top ocean. Photosynthesis evolved, by current scientific evidence, more than two billion years ago to harness sunlight to split water and release free oxygen, which initiated the development, differentiation, and expansion of the kaleidoscope of marine and terrestrial oxygen-loving (oxyphilic or “philic”) species.
The second system of oceanic bioenergetics evolved in the deep ocean—5,000 to 30,000 feet and deeper—independent of solar energy. Unaccustomed to oxygen in its ecologic niches and unable to harness its energy, life in deep ocean became oxyphobic (“phobic”). The primordial precursors of phobic life evolved around vents of the deep ocean that seeped hydrocarbons—methane gas being the best recognized form—enriched with sulfur and iron compounds. So began the sulfur and nitrogen economies of the deep ocean. Phobic microbes that produce nutrients create the conditions under which complex multicellular life developed. The bowels of the deep-ocean shrubs and trees today are filled with such microbes.
The “philic-phobic equilibrium,” which evolved over a period of about two billion years ago, is now under serious cumultative threats of global overpopulation, climatic chaos, planetary chemicalization, diffuse “oceanic plasticization,” and biodiversity. By some accounts, the accumulation of plastic waste now suffocates marine life in swaths of the Pacific ocean that equal more than half of the Atlantic Ocean. All these geologic-scale changes have in common two crucial elements: oxygen depletion and incremental oxidative stress—conditions that potently favor phobic life over philic life.
Loss of Oceanic Chlorophyll
Chlorophyll is the pigment of phytos that traps solar light to initiate the planetary energy systems. The oceanic records of chlorophyll have been used to study changes in the “oceanic energetics.” Phytoplankton biomass is a crucial measure of the health of ocean ecosystems. A diligent synthesis of the pertinent data, extending back to more than 100 years ago, sheds considerable light on the link between phyto mass and climate change.
What might have Puntites, the fabled sea-faring Nubians, thought of ocean’s energetics? Or the ancient Greeks and Persians? It is not likely that the shifting energetics of oceans and life in them escaped their notice. However, we have no records of their insights. In recent times, in 1865 Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a simple instrument to assess the clarity of the Mediterranean Sea for the Papal Navy. It was an 8-inch-wide white disk that was lowered until the observer lost sight of it. The “Secchi depth” indicated the depths of light penetration in the upper ocean—an index of phyto abundance, in the current context—and the instrument served as a major tool of oceanography. It is not known if Secchi realized his tool was also assessing the degrees of oxygenation of the ocean, and hence its health.
As Go the Oceans, So the Land Masses
The findings of the Nature report are consistent with analysis of satellite images of ocean colors, which correlate phyto density with increases in ocean warming. These observations link together the impacts of carbon overload, climate shifts, environmental pollutants, and phyto biomass—all of which compound the oxygen-depleting effects of each other. These shifts assume an altogether different importance in light of the reported yearly rate of decline of biomass of about one percent of the global median per year in eight out of ten ocean regions. My main conclusion: these connections do not bode well for marine life, nor for life on earth. As goes life in oceans, so goes the life on land—people, plants, animals. What might be the take home message: Humankind desperately needs a dose of awareness of oceans’ plight. What might an individual do? Try saying No to plastics.