The Plankton Panic

Last fall, a paper came out claiming that global warming had reduced plankton populations by about 40%. There was a wide-spread freakout in AGW circles. Plankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain and the source of half the world’s oxygen. In his book Death from the Skies, Phil Plait talked about the danger presented by a nearby supernova or gamma ray burst: it would kill of the plankton. Not long after, oxygen levels would plunge, much sea life would die and CO2 levels would soar. It’s doubtful human civilization could survive that. Grim stuff.

At the time, I was highly skeptical:

While I accept global warming, the idea that we’re facing a phytoplanton apocalypse seems dubious. The planet has been a lot warmer in the past than it is today and supported more abundant life.

That was a comment from one of my linkoramas. To be honest, their claim sounded kind of crazy. A drop of 40% in plankton, given how crucial they are to the Earth’s ecosystem, is something we would have noticed. Ocean life would be in severe decline, rather than recovering. CO2 levels would be soaring even faster than they are.

Well, turns out, they may have been full of shit:

Now, three “brief communications,” essentially rebuttal papers, have been published in Nature pushing back strongly against the paper’s core conclusion. Links to the summaries are below. I’ve queried the authors of those papers and the original analysis and will post an update when that discussion begins.

You really should read that entire link, which walks you through the process. What has happened here is not some global conspiracy of evil global warming socialists. What’s happened is science. A new study came out making a bold claim and every climate scientists and marine biologist in the world started looking over it and found it was deeply flawed. Their analysis shows, if anything, an increase in phytoplankton mass (which one might expect with more CO2 — i.e, plankton food — in the air) and attributes the supposed decline to using two different methods of measuring plankton mass. Revkin again:

The eagerness to find the “Pearl Harbor moment” or line of evidence that jogs people to act on the long-term risk of human-driven climate change, combined with the “tyranny of the front-page thought,” will long cause the kind of reaction that the initial plankton paper engendered — and that past papers on frog extinctions, Atlantic Ocean currents, ice-sheet behavior, hurricane dynamics and other facets of the climate puzzle have done.

“The tyranny of the front page” is one of biggest problems in science today. It’s a sort of Peter Principle of science. The more flawed the research, the more likely it is to make a hysterical claim and the more likely it is to find prominence in the media. We see similar things in, for example, hysterical and wildly inaccurate claims about teen prostitution.

In many ways, this is refreshing. It shows that the scientific process is still working. For all the anti-AGW chatter about the conspiracy among scientists to hide the truth, it was the scientists came out and debunked this thing almost immediately.

Notice, however the thunderous silence from the “reality-based” Left and many AGW supporters on this debate. Many of them highlighted the initial plankton study precisely as a “Pearl Harbor Moment”. They’ve been a little more quiet now that the attacking planes have turned out to be made of balsa wood.

(Not that the anti-AGW faction is any better when they continue to repeat long-debunked talking points about global cooling or the Earth not having warmed since 1998 or AGW following solar cycles.)

I’ve long said that while I think AGW theory is accurate, projections about long-term climate damage and second and tertiary effects of AGW are, at best, suspect and, at worst, voodoo. Looks like a little bit more of the voodoo has turned out to be doodoo.

Update: As long as I’m up, I tweeted about this yesterday. There is no evidence that tornados increase with global warming … none. This makes the Left’s gloating over the deaths of 300+ people extra disgusting. The null hypothesis is not that global warming causes tornados; the null hypothesis is that it doesn’t.

Comments are closed.

  1. Seattle Outcast

    I’ll put this one right up there with the “40% loss of coral worldwide in ten years” that came out ten years ago. Oddly enough, there hasn’t been any such loss of coral from “ocean acidification”, mainly because the claims were all so much BS to begin with.

    Want to worry about the oceans? Get on board with stopping the overfishing of tuna, swordfish, sharks and other assorted top-tier predators and quit wasting your time listening to chicken-little fear mongers peddling the latest line of crap that gets politically-targeted research money.

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  2. JimK

    The overfishing of predatory fish (and salmon) has some complex causes, but one of them is world-wide advice to EAT MORE FATTY FISH. And it’s good advice, if you balance the fatty fish with how much mercury you take in, you can get a lot of health benefits.

    2 things there: People don’t know the difference between wild and farmed (most farmed fatty fish farmed offers almost none of the benefits of wild save for lower cholesterol due to being fish and basic protein, again ’cause it’s a fish). The second thing? There is a big, oily-fleshed fish that can be sustainably farmed that offers a great omega 3 to omega 6 ratio, and fucking no one buys it because tuna and swordfish get all the buzz: Steelhead Trout.

    Steelhead Trout are nutritionally equal to salmon. They can be prepared EVERY way salmon can. They look like salmon flesh. They taste like the perfect balance between delicate, near-to-flavorless farmed salmon and the more pungent wild salmon. the flesh is delicate and flaky like salmon, but substantial in the mouth like tuna. They don’t eat other fish, so they don’t accumulate mercury. The farms (depending on method) are able to be moved inland and can be filtered with natural filtering processes. They don’t need corn meal feed or antibiotics to be farmed. The good farms build contained ecosystems that self-perpetuate. And they are cheaper than salmon and tuna and especially swordfish virtually year-round.

    Chilean trout farms are the best. Maine uses antibiotics and open-water pens on the shore. If you give a crap about the “green” issue of transporting seafood, the Maine method of farming is thought to be more ecologically destructive than the damage done by shipping from Chile.

    Lastly, they are fucking delicious.

    Just the foodie/nutritionist in me coming out. Steelhead Trout. Get some. Your mouth and waistline – and your heart – will thank me.

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  3. JimK

    I’ve noticed the price of the big predator fish going up faster than everything else too. I assume that’s a supply & demand thing…

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  4. AlexInCT

    Hal, I read this also and it looks like the problem with the first study clearly was that they wanted to get the conclusion that the oceans plankton was dying out, and then because of AGW, thus went far beyond plain and simple sloppy science to come up with their numbers. These bozos started off with a premise and “found” the data & analysis to make their case. I wonder how many reports just like this one are out there. How many things have been foisted on us because of studies like this that clearly start with a conclusion and then figure out how to “prove” it? And to me that’s as big of a story as the fact that the media is so quick to put doomsday stories, especially when it goes with the narrative the left pushes, not just when dealing with AGW, but practically everything, on the front page, but then ignore or short shrift the story when someone else points out they were full of shit.

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  5. JimK

    You see a lot of this kind of “science” when you read the Journal of the American Dietetics Association. Which I do. The actual journal, not a magazine about it.

    SO DRY. But: you can pick out the studies that are almost designed to get a result, and those that are simply looking for whatever result they get. Language bias, sampling rates, data calculation…there are a million ways to massage data and the health sciences frigging excel at it.

    The more I know, the more jaded I get towards my future profession…

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  6. InsipiD

    This makes the Left’s gloating over the deaths of 300+ people extra disgusting.

    That was even more partisan and disgusting than I expected. Wow.

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  7. Seattle Outcast

    Nothing quite like catching a Steelhead or Jack Salmon on #6 Spruce fly.

    Spent most of the summer of 1986 just beneath Lost Creek Dam with my brother doing just that.

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  8. Seattle Outcast

    It’s going to be at least 20 years before tuna populations start to recover in any significant fashion.

    I remember when they first started this whole “you’re killing the world by eating beef, you must exploit the oceans” and then went on to explain how the oceans were just fucking filled with megatons of yummy food. And we all said “shit, cheap meat, let’s go get some” and they proceeded to empty the fucking oceans of fish as a result. Lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

    Anyway, a side effect of removing all the top-tier predators from the ocean has resulted in other species having wild population surges – jellyfish and Humboldt squid among them. Neither of these beasts are particularly welcome in large numbers, and Humboldt squid are real fucking assholes even in small numbers.

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  9. InsipiD

    I would agree with your assessment of steelhead. It’s delicious and cheaper than salmon. I’ve been eating more of it the last few months since prices had been rising. It’s nice to know a little more of its health credentials.

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  10. West Virginia Rebel

    Nature needs natural predators if only to keep population levels down. It is not cute and cuddly, folks…

    Besides, don’t you know that Soylent Green is people!

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  11. Mississippi Yankee

    If Soylent Green becomes a reality a good location for the factory would be 8 Mile & Woodward (the old fair ground) in Detroit.

    It seems Bloomberg thinks this is where we need to send all immigrant.

    Repopulate Detroit

    Is there still a preview for comments???

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  12. JimK

    Is there still a preview for comments???

    There is now. Took some doing and a few failed installs, but there’s a “preview” button just to the right of the HTML tags.

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  13. JimK

    Hmm. Did I break nesting formatting here? This is a test without previewing

    edit – Fuck. Preview breaks the cool nesting box. Well…gonna have to wait until tomorrow to solve.

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