Eating the seed corn

Spoiler alert: if this post doesn’t spoil your week, or worse, you and I don’t share the same reality.

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

17 thoughts on “Eating the seed corn”

  1. Where does the estimate come from? Is it averaged over all data since 1899, suggesting that the total decline is about 50% since then? Or is it based on extrapolating from a short snapshot in time, assuming that some rate that occurred recently is our ongoing rate?

  2. This showed up at Sullivan's place earlier today. 1% per year compounded over 110 years gives 33.1% remaining.

    I've not looked at the source material (cited at link). Curious if this is an accelerating trend. Also if any causal mechanisms have been proposed.

  3. There's a story by Chad Oliver, "King of the Hill", in Again Dangerous Visions, that is sufficiently cynical to describe the situation we're in.

  4. A couple points about this. First, decreasing plankton productivity also means decreasing carbon uptake by the oceans, so that future CO2 reductions will have to be that much greater (and at some point there could be a crossover where ocean uptake is no longer sufficient to balance non-anthropogenic carbon sources, which would be really bad). Second, if some of the mechanisms proposed for this are accurate (increasing stratification, less turnover) all of the cheap avenues for geoengineering increased productivity are foreclosed.

  5. I ditto the complaint about the news. But you haven't even seen the LA Times recently, if you think the NYT is looking anemic!! The LAT buried what happened to Lynne Stewart last week.

    By the way, why no Lynne Stewart here? Did she or did she not get much too harshly punished? Where are you guys on this?

  6. Get a grip man. This is a meta-analysis of past data with modeling predictions for future trends. At best, this is an excellent springboard with which to one can design future experiments around in order to test this hypothesis, determining which parts of the model hold up, and which parts need adjusting (as the authors correctly state). This is the purpose of these types of analyses.

    Also note that it is the median value of the 10 ocean regions that is estimated to be falling at 1% per year. This is not the same as average values or total values. Averaging these 10 regions would be meaningless because they are not all the same size. Your are incorrect in stating that "the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year" for this reason. It is not possible to estimate the earth's total reduction of organic matter per year from the numbers presented in this abstract. It is also not possible to estimate global reduction of organic matter, due to phytoplankton, per year from the numbers presented in this abstract.

    The inaccurate conclusions that you present in this article make be breathe a sigh of relief that the main stream media didn't pick this up and butcher the inferences that can be drawn from this study even more (they usually do, for most science stories).

    What the hell do I know, I'm just a professional scientist …

  7. It's very puzzling that these results would be world-wide – there's been a sort of sweet spot in temperate waters (as opposed to the near sterility of the tropics, shown by the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, eg) for lots of plankton. Not that much warming has gone on, so far, we mostly have dire predictions for the future. So, just thinking about it, I would kind of expect that if there were an effect like this, the waters off Newfoundland would be like Boston fifty years ago, Boston like North Carolina fifty years ago, etc. A world-wide decline doesn't make intuitive sense. Intuition isn't worth a lot, though, if there's data.

  8. I have learned to always take the latest, greatest breaking science news with huge grains of salt. Media reports are always hyped, conclusions always sound more certain in the article than in the actual research paper. Projections for the future are make too many assumptions about continuing present trends.

    so Don't Panic!

    Study the f___ out of the problem, add it to the known possible future risks, and do the steps we know we have to do, even if this piece of research proves incorrect. I'm looking at you, coal power plants.

  9. Oh, surfing the net the other day, I found an article about the thermosphere contracting the year before last. I don't know if this was a peer reviewed material or not, but it is not good news if it is happened.

    More information: Emmert, J. T., J. L. Lean, and J. M. Picone (2010), Record-low thermospheric density during the 2008 solar minimum, Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L12102.

  10. If true, this clearly calls for prosecuting anti-nuclear activists for treason to humanity.

    On the other hand, the world was warmer in past eras with apparently stable ecosystems … so it seems unlikely.

    On the gripping hand, this might explain declining fish stocks.

  11. Steph, maybe read the paper before drawing conclusions. They do it the same way they do now: the Secchi disc was invented in the 19th century, and it's so easy and cheap to take readings that the authors could draw on almost half a million data points going back more than a century.

  12. No, Steph is right. Secchi disks probably aren't that great a proxy for phytoplankton health.

    Anyways, Michael, I feel I owe it to your mental health to allay your worries. Phytoplankton has seen much higher temps and much higher concentrations of CO2 in its tenure here on Earth. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of them being fine.

    I might also suggest a leisurely stroll down memory lane, through the thousands of articles from last 100 years that extrapolated trends and concluded we would all be dead by now, most based firmly in Science (cue trumpets). Guess how many of them were right?

Comments are closed.