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Your great-great-great-grandfather's plankton

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Richard Maltzman
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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:

  1. The plankton provided an unusually complete data set
  2. 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.

Your thoughts? 

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 30, 2019 08:53 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Thanks, Richard. The write-up didn't really do much to answer the question. It's unfortunate that it's so hard to pin down, especially given the natural climate shifts that were occurring about the same time as the birth of the industrial revolution.

Of interest to me from a project management perspective is whether the question is as relevant as we make it out to be. (I'm thinking of the pervasive Parkinson's Law of Triviality and the tendency of project teams to spend the majority of their time debating the questions that don't really matter, so as to avoid the critical questions that really do matter.) What I mean is: does the degree to which humanity has affected the climate really matter, except as a means to learn how we might affect the climate in the future? I'm thinking also of your interesting post about innovative solutions to climate change: would our response to rising sea levels be any different depending on the degree to which we are to blame?

What is meant here with the wordings "Part of the debate on climate change is whether or not it is anthropogenic".? The debate in the scientific community, ie, the climatologists, is not at all about this. There are many open questions but we are very confident that the climate change we are experiencing is anthropogenic. We need to be very careful here in choosing the words as non-experts might misunderstand that this is up to debate in the climate science community which is not.
Thanks for sharing the Nature study though.

Luisa, I agree that the scientific community has nearly 100% agreement on the issue of an anthropogenic cause. Note, however, that this says PART of the the debate. Unfortunately, much of the debate is outside of the scientific community and in the political arena, where this debate needs to be "informed" with the physical facts and reality on which there is (as you say) scientific agreement. One of the things I am trying to do with this blog is to assure that the project management community is informed. Your response to the post helps further with that effort. Thanks.

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