Tag: Ecology

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.