No, We Aren’t Going To Run Out Of Oxygen

Or, newspapers really need better science reporters.

I first saw this Bangor Daily News story linked at Shakesville, but I think it’s making the rounds generally.

The article discusses a study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences of decreased phytoplankton reproduction rates in the Gulf of Maine — which, to be clear, is a real issue, and cause for some concern — and extrapolates the study’s findings into an apocalyptic-sounding threat to the atmosphere of the entire planet: “such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren.”

And it’s certainly true: if phytoplankton reproduction rates across the world’s oceans had dropped to 20% of their normal level, and showed no sign of bouncing back, that would pretty much be a doomsday scenario.

But it turns out that while ocean warming and acidification are still real long-term problems, there’s very little reason to expect that these findings have any major implications outside the actual area they cover. The Gulf of Maine’s problems are specific and localized; the world’s oxygen supply is not in immediate danger.

It happens that both my parents are marine invertebrate zoologists; my father is the director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution after spending decades in the biology department researching zooplankton and jellies, and my mother is a science writer in the education department. I asked them about the Bangor Daily News article and the study it discusses, and they said I could quote their responses (sent to me, amusingly, within about five minutes of each other).

Here’s Dad:

It’s only about the Gulf of Maine, where more sediment runoff from recently undammed rivers and some increase in temperature are affecting phytoplankton photosynthesis. It  may have an effect on fish populations in the Gulf in years to come, but there isn’t direct evidence of that yet. The flushing of sediment from the rivers will probably stabilize in a year or so, and water conditions would get clearer in the Gulf. Climate related changes in ocean temperature and acidity may start to affect productivity in some places but won’t affect overall oxygen production.

And Mom added:

[I]n the Gulf of Maine, maybe lobster and groundfish (cod or haddock) will decline in a couple of years, but it might be transient, if the sediment gets flushed out in a year or two. We don’t really know yet how the ocean’s organisms will respond to slightly higher temperatures (maybe some phytoplankton will grow more under those circumstances.).

We’re not going to run out of air. I DO think humans are having an effect on the ocean. But we don’t know the extent yet, or all the implications, so that’s why we need to keep watching.

I’m concerned about overfishing, rising temperatures, and acidification. However, U.S. fish stocks are becoming increasingly well-managed, and are very carefully monitored, so overfishing along U.S. coasts is not so serious as it was[.]

They also checked with a phytoplankton expert at WHOI, who offered some remarks (with the caveat that this is a personal perspective, and not a scientific analysis of the findings):

I think this is a extremely interesting finding that provides a wake up call about the kinds of impacts of environmental change can have on marine ecosystems. In general I think we tend to be too cavalier about ocean impacts. … The impacts noted in the paper are large, but the findings so far are local-to-regional in scope. I don’t think anyone is responsibly ready to project this indicates a massive die off of primary producers at much larger scales. … I think it’s a good bet a lot of those nutrients will be used by phytoplankton eventually. This kind of shift could seriously impact the spatial structure of the ecosystem and how it functions, with potentially big effects for particular species, etc. … but it probably won’t mean anything like a full scale shutdown in productivity or large scale decrease in O2 production or anything along those alarmist lines of reasoning.

My thoughts on this are, mainly, that it shows the importance of better science reporting. The impending-doom spin here seems to have come almost entirely from the newspaper, not the study or the lab that produced it. Responsible news organizations need to ensure their science reporting is accurate and accessible (not always an easy task, I realize, and certainly not made easier by shrinking newsroom budgets and staff). Sensationalist reporting like this may sell papers in the short term, but in the long run — when the dire consequences don’t materialize — it erodes the lay public’s trust in science reporting, and ultimately in science itself, and it often makes people of good will, who earnestly directed others’ attention toward the bad reporting because they trusted they’d been given accurate information, into targets of mockery and derision by the more cynical.

There are very real reasons to be worried about the effect of climate change, and other consequences of human action, some linked and some not, on the ecosystem of the oceans, and it’s certainly true that overall phytoplankton health in the oceans is of crucial importance to the global food chain. But specific, local effects in the Gulf of Maine related to high sediment runoff in recent years are not the right place to look for the worst dangers, and focusing too much on this kind of article can cause us to miss or ignore bigger problems which might not seem as spectacular at first.

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3 comments

  1. Which reminds me in turn of what Amanda Marcotte (at pandagon) and PZ Meyers were writing earlier today: yes, teaching the theory of evolution is important. Teaching science is important.

  2. Thanks for posting this! (I came here from Shakesville.)

    Can I also note that “phytoplankton” refers to a taxonomically and biochemically diverse set of organisms, and that noting the response of the aggregate community is crucial, it misses a lot of details? (I can’t resist saying it. I work with a species that might actually be increasing its range because lab studies suggest it can withstand a wider range of temperatures and salinities than its close relatives, and this kind of reporting won’t let go of my brain!)

    Also, Sensationalist reporting like this may sell papers in the short term, but in the long run — when the dire consequences don’t materialize — it erodes the lay public’s trust in science reporting, and ultimately in science itself, and it often makes people of good will, who earnestly directed others’ attention toward the bad reporting because they trusted they’d been given accurate information, into targets of mockery and derision by the more cynical. is beautifully put.

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