Photo Credit: Michael Kucera
Part of the debate on climate change is whether or not it is anthropogenic - meaning caused by humans. Some argue that, sure, the climate is changing, but it’s always changing, it’s natural, and we as humans have nothing to do with it. This is a big deal, because if it is our “handiwork”, [A] we will know more about the nature of the problem, and [B] we would have better information – as well as greater responsibility – to do something about it, and fast.
To determine this, a study just published in Nature magazine which was based on a scientific research project that used plankton sediment from greater than 170 years ago (thus the title of this blog post) as a baseline (another project management key word!) to look at the changes. In particular, this study used planktonic foraminifera, which are abundant at greater depths, and in some places can carpet entire swaths of the sea floor.
The writeup of the study in Nature is highly technical and frankly hard to read even for a science nerd like myself. However, a summary of the study was provided in Smithsonian magazine, which is summarized here:
…one of the sea’s most ubiquitous organisms is helping researchers measure the changes that have already occurred. Centuries of fossil records and live-capture data show that some marine plankton populations reflect a clear change in response to human industrialization and the warming oceans that have come with it.
If you’d like to see one of these critters eating another critter (a tiny shrimp, in fact), watch the video below:
In any case, here's what the researchers found and just reported on last week:
- The plankton provided an unusually complete data set
- There was an exceedingly clear correlation between temperatures from pre- and post-industrial times and the representative plankton extracted in the core samples.
From the Smithsonian article:
The shift, measured by comparing the relative abundances of dozens of plankton species within the samples, doesn’t appear to be random. The amount of change in the plankton communities correlated with the degree of documented temperature change in the surrounding waters. The direction of shifting communities also largely lined up with patterns of ocean temperature change, as authors found when they matched up seafloor fossils with their closest analogues in modern communities.
Planktonic foraminifera may not be as majestic as whales or sea stars, but the breadth of their fossil record provides a useful baseline to confirm a wider trend of ocean life changing in response to human activity. Shifts in plankton communities are a concerning indicator of the “bigger picture” for marine ecosystems as ocean temperatures continue to rise at increasing rates, the researchers say.
I find this research project fascinating and I think it helps us focus on facts rather than to debate based on guesses and assertions which may or may not be true.