Tiny Creatures Far Away

Every Saturday, our local daily performs a valuable service with its page A-2 “Earth Diary,” a roundup of environmental news from around the globe. The items are only 100 words long, but some of the snapshots are valuable.

An item last week, for instance, made me think about the bit of conventional wisdom that’s always trotted out in defense of doing nothing to reduce human impact on the environment. This little shibboleth holds that the world is too big for us mere humans to have any serious lasting negative impact on it.

The notion is a holdover from when it was actually somewhat true: Until a few hundred years back, before we burned fossil fuels or numbered several billion, most human societies that overshot the carrying capacity of their environment had fairly localized effects. If some ancient city or other deforested its hills, most of the world remained untouched. And even the affected land, still free of synthetic chemicals, would eventually recover.

But the Earth Diary item, about declining numbers of the marine plants known as phytoplankton, suggests that now, something like the opposite is true. In places like North America, we’ve outsourced so many of our environmental costs that things can look OK where we are even as the rest of the planet rides the big swirly down the cosmic toilet.

The report about phytoplankton was based on research published in the journal Nature. Scientists from Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, studied a century-plus of data and estimated that phytoplankton levels have declined by about 1 percent annually since 1899.

That’s important because phytoplankton, or marine algae, generate about half of all the organic matter on earth. They’re the base of the marine food chain. They also do us the important service of absorbing some of the carbon dioxide we recklessly send wafting into the atmosphere. At the very least, their declining numbers spell bad news for the fish (Nature mentions big open-ocean species like tuna and swordfish) on which so many people depend for protein.

The research — including “some 450,000 globally distributed measurements collected between 1899 and 2008,” according to Nature — seconded earlier studies that also found phytoplankton declines.

The Dalhousie researchers believe that the most likely factor to explain the declines is the warming of the oceans. Globally, the average temperature rise has been half a degree Celsius over a century. Sounds tiny, but it might be enough to increase the stratification of warm and colder water in the oceans so that nutrients that used to reach the algae (who inhabit the warmer upper layers) no longer do so.

The paragraph-long item that led me to the report was much briefer than that day’s page-one story (with color photo) about the attempts of our town’s starting professional-quarterback to redeem his reputation as an alleged sexual predator. This alone says something about our priorities. (Why not an “Earth Diary” every day?)

Look where you live. The sun still comes up, the wind still blows. If we’re lucky, the rain still falls — but not too much or too hard.  Many of us live nowhere near an ocean. But the big bodies of salty water that cover most of the planet are suffering. And it seems to be because of us.

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