Friday, December 08, 2006

Counter-Intuitive Bad News

Here's a new finding that goes the exact opposite direction from what the climate optimists have been saying. You've probably heard the argument that CO2 is plant food, so rising CO2 means more plant growth, which means more food for humans and everything else, and at the same time, controls the rise in CO2 levels. You probably already know some problems with that argument: plant growth is obviously not controlling CO2 levels, and CO2-fertilized crops may actually be less nutritious.

But here's the new problem. Satellite studies indicate that microscopic plants in the ocean grow slower when the ocean gets warmer.

That startled me. From my biology background, I know that most biological processes speed up with temperature. Heck, just from living through a cycle of the seasons here, I know that plants grow faster when it's warmer. So why do these tiny plants in the ocean grow slower? From the news release at Oregon State University:
When the ocean surface warms, it essentially becomes “lighter” than the cold, dense water below, which is loaded with nutrients. This process effectively separates phytoplankton in the surface layer - which need light for photosynthesis - from the nutrients below them, which they also need for growth.
Well, so what? Aren't trees more important than these phytoplankton that we can't even see with the naked eye? Back to the news release:
Despite their microscopic size, ocean phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the photosynthesis on Earth, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into organic carbon to fuel nearly every ocean ecosystem.

Bad news, yes. Or is it? I'd say it's better than no news. If phytoplankton dies in the ocean, and nobody hears about it, it still dies. How about using this news as fuel to fire up your determination to walk instead of driving. Try a toboggan for the groceries, with a picnic cooler on it to keep the bananas and lettuce from freezing on the way home. Or grow some sprouts instead of buying lettuce, and check out those new garden catalogs for some fruit trees and berry bushes to plant next season. Insignificant? Consider this: a lot of people say our food in Canada travels an average of 2500 km to get to a dinner plate, and I've heard some estimates as high as double that.

And pass the word along to a climate optimist. Gently. They don't like to hear this stuff - and can you blame them?


H. Stallard said...

Another problem with warmer ocean water is that it holds less oxygen than does the colder water which is bad news for the animal types.

arcolaura said...

Yes, and then there's the acidification. And I just came from reading Jared Diamond's story of Easter Island. Whew. Good thing I can go off and play my clarinet in the community band this evening and be joyful.

Best wishes, everyone, from the bottom of my heart.

Jim said...

The bark-beetle infestation that is killing off our Western forests is tied to rising C02 levels and global warming too.

Because winters aren't getting cold enough to kill off the beetle larvae, the insects are not only wiping out trees in record numbers in their historic habitat, they are also moving to higher elevations now and ravaging the forests there.

It doesn't matter if trees might grow faster with higher levels of C02 if they're all dying from insect infestations.

Below is a link to a related article.

arcolaura said...

Good point, Jim, and thanks for the article. I hadn't looked at the bark-beetle situation lately.

(Other readers - if you have trouble copying the link from Jim's comment, try triple-clicking on it - that way you will select the whole thing. Then use control-V to copy it.)