The first global scale polluters – plankton

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The EPA could have regulated these little suckers right out of existence for changing the balance of the atmosphere.

From the National Science Foundation and Ohio State University:

Plankton key to origin of Earth’s first breathable atmosphere

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers studying the origin of Earth’s first breathable atmosphere have zeroed in on the major role played by some very unassuming creatures: plankton.

In a paper to appear in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Ohio State University researcher Matthew Saltzman and his colleagues show how plankton provided a critical link between the atmosphere and chemical isotopes stored in rocks 500 million years ago.

This work builds on the team’s earlier discovery that upheavals in the earth’s crust initiated a kind of reverse-greenhouse effect 500 million years ago that cooled the world’s oceans, spawned giant plankton blooms, and sent a burst of oxygen into the atmosphere.

The new study has revealed details as to how oxygen came to vanish from Earth’s ancient atmosphere during the Cambrian Period, only to return at higher levels than ever before.

It also hints at how, after mass extinctions, the returning oxygen allowed enormous amounts of new life to flourish.

Saltzman and his team were able to quantify how much oxygen was released into the atmosphere at the time, and directly link the amount of sulfur in the ancient oceans with atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide.

The result is a clearer picture of life on Earth in a time of extreme turmoil.

“We know that oxygen levels in the ocean dropped dramatically [a condition called anoxia] during the Cambrian, and that coincides with the time of a global extinction,” said Saltzman, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State.

In a paper in the journal Nature just last month, the same researchers presented the first geochemical evidence that the anoxia spread even to the world’s shallow waters.

“We still don’t know why the anoxia spread all over the world. We may never know,” Saltzman said. “But there have been many other extinction events in Earth’s history, and with the exception of those caused by meteor impacts, others likely share elements of this one – changes in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans.”

“By getting a handle on what was happening back then, we may improve our understanding of what’s happening to the atmosphere now.”

Something enabled oxygen to re-enter the oceans and the atmosphere 500 million years ago, and the study suggests that the tiny plant and animal life forms known as plankton were key.

Plankton may be at the bottom our food chain today, but back then, they ruled the planet. There was no life on land at all. And aside from an abundance of trilobites, life in the oceans was not very diverse.

Not diverse, that is, until a geologic event that scientists call the Steptoean Positive Carbon Isotope Excursion (SPICE) occurred. In previous work, Saltzman and his collaborators showed that the SPICE event was caused by the burial of huge quantities of organic matter in ocean sediments, which pulled carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and released oxygen.

The more oxygen plankton encounter in their cells, the more selective they become for the light isotope of carbon in carbon dioxide, and absorb it into their bodies.

By studying isotopes in fossilized plankton contained in rocks found in the central United States, the Australian outback, and China, the researchers determined that the SPICE event happened around the same time as an explosion of plankton diversity known as the “plankton revolution.”

“The amount of oxygen rebounded, and so did the diversity of life,” Saltzman explained.

Other researchers have tried to gauge how much oxygen was in the air during the Cambrian, but their estimates have varied widely, from a few percent to as much as 15-20 percent.

If the higher estimates were correct, then the SPICE event would have boosted oxygen content to greater than 30 percent – or almost 50 percent richer than today’s standard of 21 percent.

This study has provided a new perspective on the matter.

“We were able to bring together independent lines of evidence that showed that if the total oxygen content was around 5-10 percent before the SPICE, then it rose to just above modern levels for the first time after the SPICE,” Saltzman said.

The study has some relevance to modern geoengineering. Scientists have begun to investigate what we can do to forestall climate change, and altering the chemistry of the oceans could help remove carbon dioxide and restore balance to the atmosphere. The ancient and humble plankton would be a necessary part of that equation, he added.

“When it comes to ancient life, they don’t sound as exciting as dinosaurs, but the plankton are critical to this story.”

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37 thoughts on “The first global scale polluters – plankton

  1. My god!
    Sunlight + Critter + Carbon Dioxide + Water = Oxygen + More Critters
    A different critter + Oxygen + Water = Cabon Dioxide + More different critters
    Rinse repeat
    Who would have thought!

  2. i would have posted this on tips’n’notes, but i can’t open the bottom of the page to post it, so hope it’s okay here:
    21 Feb: UPI: Climate change said threat to food safety
    Michigan State University Professor Ewen Todd says the effects of climate change on food safety, though poorly understood, is inevitable and must be addressed, a MSU release reported Monday.
    There are already examples of climate change taking its toll on the world’s food supply, he said, giving as an example a disease pathogen known as vibrio, typically found in warm ocean water but now becoming more common in the north as water temperatures rise…
    Other disease risks are also growing, he said.
    “Mycotoxins are molds that can sometimes cause illness in humans, and where you have drought and starvation there can be a mycotoxin problem,” he said. “That’s because people will store their meager resources of crops for longer than they should.”…
    “Accelerating climate change is inevitable with implications for animal products and crops,” Todd said. “At this point, the effects of climate change on food safety are poorly understood.”
    http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2011/02/21/Climate-change-said-threat-to-food-safety/UPI-16751298328966/

  3. As someone working in the field of photosynthesis research, I feel it is a common sense for decades that planktons played an essential role in creating/regulating the atmosphere. What are their novel findings?

  4. Bill Bryson described this in his 2003 book Everything you need to know, when describing the stromalites off Broome Western Australia, plus a lot of other stuff this article seems to cover. So presumably, given the length of time he spends actually researching facts, it was common knowledge well prior to 2003.
    Why do I feel I am on a never ceasing merry-go-round that has each generation discovering new things I already know?

  5. “Scientists have begun to investigate what we can do to forestall climate change, and altering the chemistry of the oceans could help remove carbon dioxide and restore balance to the atmosphere”
    How about –
    “Scientists are discovering that we have been on a rollercoaster ride for the past five billion years but have not yet realised how impotent we are in attempting to make any changes to the ride.”

  6. “Scientists have begun to investigate what we can do to forestall climate change”
    Why does every single press release have to carry the obligatory “climate change” reference and act as if there is anything we can do about it?

  7. Ying needs lots of CO2 to survive, the more the better. In digesting the C, Ying releases O2
    Yang needs lots of O2 to survive, says “thnx Ying”, digets the O2 and reciprocates by releasing Co2.
    These boofheads want to restrict Yings food, not realising that that will also impact Yang (themselves) ☯

  8. Ever since Spongebob I’ve known that Plankton are pure evil. Good to see the rest of the world catching up.
    Mark

  9. Mixes nicely with a couple of comments above. Startling news today (and note “millions”) about a fact given wide publicity decades ago. Recycling common knowledge is one way to “get in the paper”.

    Patients suspected of having high blood pressure will in future be sent home with a monitor for 24 hours because millions of people are being wrongly diagnosed with the condition due to waiting room nerves.

  10. Other researchers have tried to gauge how much oxygen was in the air during the Cambrian, but their estimates have varied widely, from a few percent to as much as 15-20 percent.
    If the higher estimates were correct, then the SPICE event would have boosted oxygen content to greater than 30 percent – or almost 50 percent richer than today’s standard of 21 percent.

    That would have been quite significant, and it’s a good thing there wasn’t life on land. It might have even deterred life from being on land at all.
    http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Oxygen_Fuels_The_Fires_Of_Time_999.html

    Dr. Ian J. Glasspool from the Department of Geology at the Field Museum explained that: “Atmospheric oxygen concentration is strongly related to flammability. At levels below 15% wildfires could not have spread. However, at levels significantly above 25% even wet plants could have burned, while at levels around 30 to 35%, as have been proposed for the Late Paleozoic, wildfires would have been frequent and catastrophic”.

    Good article to read, good info about the previous fluctuations in atmospheric O2.
    Thankfully at around only 400 parts per million atmospheric CO2 concentration, we don’t have to worry about any would-be geo-engineers converting enough CO2 to O2 to set large swatches of the land afire. Of course, at only about 400 ppm CO2, it won’t take much to drop the CO2 levels to where it really impacts life on Earth.
    Are there still people out there who think it’d be a good idea to bio-engineer a more productive oxygen-producing life form to “scrub” the “excess” CO2 out of the atmosphere, that could possibly be released into the wild, or that is intended to be released into the wild?

  11. From Baa Humbug on February 22, 2011 at 12:24 am:

    These boofheads want to restrict Yings food, not realising that that will also impact Yang (themselves) ☯

    Does this mean you’re tired of them playing with their Ying-Yang?

  12. “The study has some relevance to modern geoengineering. Scientists have begun to investigate what we can do to forestall climate change, and altering the chemistry of the oceans could help remove carbon dioxide and restore balance to the atmosphere. The ancient and humble plankton would be a necessary part of that equation, he added.”
    I’m sorry but anyone who believes that CO2 is the Chuck Norris of molecules is banned from geoengineering anything larger than an ant farm.

  13. I for one was under the impression that the evolution of land plants caused elevated oxygen levels, that allowed the evolution of multi-cellular animals. So this is news to me. Wikipedia article on the geological history on oxygen also suggests this, making no mention of plankton at all. Better edit it if you knew it was plankton all along.

  14. Have our scientists been living in a caccoon . Thirties. forties and fifties books on our planets evolution said all this stuff about Miraflora and the production of oxygen.
    Our original atmosphere was CO2 the ocean plants and then the land plants created the O2 before animals appeared. We can thank our green friends for transforming the world. It was the O2 that made the ozone layer that keeps us from harm and the O2 that allowed us to evolve.
    Therefore I would suggest that it is only fair to increase the CO2 level as kind repayment to their service in creating the conditions for us to thrive.

  15. “The study has some relevance to modern geoengineering. Scientists have begun to investigate what we can do to forestall climate change, and altering the chemistry of the oceans could help remove carbon dioxide and restore balance to the atmosphere. ”
    But, of course, let’s change mother nature big time to hopefully, according to calculated models, will change the climate just so, before the climate really change on its own.
    Do they suffer the lack of intelligence or hubris?

  16. So, my general impression from looking at the comments here at WUWT is that we humans — with our mining and oil industries, our power plants and factories, our aeroplanes, agriculture and what have you — are way too tiny to influence climate in any meaningful way.
    Plankton, on the other hand – why, of course it could work dramatic changes to the very composition of Earth’s atmosphere! Boring and obvious! Cut those people’s funding and let them find honest jobs!
    Honestly, people…

  17. The proto atmosphere had to be Nitrogen and CO2 as oxygen would not have survived the planet’s start due to the heat and chemical reactions going on. Oxygen is highly reactive. Thanks to cyanobacteria and later algal plankton we now enjoy an oxygen rich atmosphere.
    Get rid of the EPA!!!

  18. To Konfacela:
    I think the point is, climate has been changing since the beginning of time–before humans arrived on the scene. There are many differnt forces driving the climate. To suggest that humans are suddenly responsible for the warming that has occurred since the 1990s is ludicrous.

  19. The new study has revealed details as to how oxygen came to vanish from Earth’s ancient atmosphere during the Cambrian Period, only to return at higher levels than ever before.
    ======================================================
    Oxygen did not vanish, CO2 levels went up.
    =======================================================
    Something enabled oxygen to re-enter the oceans and the atmosphere 500 million years ago, and the study suggests that the tiny plant and animal life forms known as plankton were key.
    ======================================================
    It was the elevated CO2 levels that created a condition more friendly for life to develop.
    Especially plankton/plants/algae………..
    Now we are worried about CO2 levels that are the lowest ever, knowing that almost everything we need evolved when CO2 levels were in the thousands………

  20. If you look at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=phytoplankton-population, or search on [ plankton population collapse Boyce ], you will find a report about the loss of phytoplankton, Down by 40% since 1950.
    If these were land plants the MSM would be having a fit, Harribin and Black would be weeping, the headlines would be loud with ‘we’re all doomed’ stories. But because plankton are beyond most peoples’ experience, nothing.
    Think about this: plankton pull down CO2 and, judging from the paper cited above, are capable of sequestering it. If they vanish then they leave lots of carbon in the atmosphere and, because of the way most phytos work, the airborne C will be rich in 12C. Sound familiar? If we have altered the plankton populations (pollution, oil spills and surfactants reducing nutrient flow from below, silica from agriculture favouring diatoms over calcareous phytos, etc etc, search for “Global Warming in the 20th Century: An Alternative Scenario” on Judith Curry’s blog) then we have no means of knowing that the light isotope signal in the air is anything to do with fossil fuel burning.
    Phytos produce cloud condensation nuclei and maintain cloud cover over 30% of the oceans. Reduce that albedo and the world warms. This is ICM, inadvertent climate modification. It may be us. It may well be oil. But may not be your SUV.*
    JF
    *Unless you let your garage dispose of used oil into the nearest watercourse, then it probably is.

  21. pat says:
    February 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm
    “Mycotoxins are molds that can sometimes cause illness in humans”
    The safety of the world’s food supply is under threat from climate change and the damage is going to get worse unless action is taken, a U.S. researcher says.
    Mycotoxins are not molds! They are produced by molds. Poison in mushrooms are from mycotoxins. Some Mycotoxins are used for medicine such as Penicillin, and other antibiotics. Some are used for foods as cheese and soy sauce.
    I almost died from an infection from an Aspergillus Micotoxin from a contaminated sugical implant. One of the medications I took was produced from a micotoxin.
    Not Climate change or mold as the researcher added.

  22. Julian Flood says:
    February 22, 2011 at 6:02 am
    If you look at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=phytoplankton-population, or search on [ plankton population collapse Boyce ], you will find a report about the loss of phytoplankton, Down by 40% since 1950.
    ============================================
    Julian, phosphorus/phosphate is limiting.
    But you’re right. If phytoplankton numbers have reduced by 40%, then the amount of CO2 they would sequester has also been reduced by 40%.

  23. Konfacela: The total mass of plankton on the planet is greater than the total mass of humanity. Likely by several orders of magnitude. I suspect that would be true even if you tossed in the mass of our buildings and other artifacts, but admittedly haven’t done the math.
    Everyone should check out the Larry Niven’s “Tales from the Draco Tavern”, particularly “The Green Marauder”.

  24. quote
    Julian, phosphorus/phosphate is limiting.
    unquote
    The limit on diatoms is, if I have read correctly, is frequently dissolved silica: only when the silica is exhausted can the calcareous phytos gain traction. There will, of course, be other limiting nutrients, with phosphates being spectacular in their effects in regions where other nutrients are in abundant supply. Why, we may ask, is iron used as the feed in the fertilisation experiments? Presumably the far oceans are most limited by that, but it seems unexpected.
    Is it just me, or is climate science skewed towards physics, with limited curiosity about biological changes?
    JF

  25. Someone here could shed some light on this question perhaps.
    To turn all oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere into CO₂ the amount of carbon needed is about 785 kg/m². It should be in a reduced form, that is, carbonate rocks don’t count. Crustal fossil fuel reserves are said to contain about 5,000 Gt carbon, which is 10 kg/m². If current atmospheric oxygen comes from reduction of CO₂ by plants (algae), there should be at least another 775 kg/m² reduced carbon buried in sediments.
    Question: How is it distributed and in what form is it found in rocks? In what kind of rocks in the first place?

  26. Julian Flood says:
    February 22, 2011 at 8:00 am
    Is it just me, or is climate science skewed towards physics, with limited curiosity about biological changes?
    =========================================
    As volcanic activity decreased, so did the silicates. Diatoms are the primary atmospheric nitrogen fixers.
    Phosphorus is still limiting.
    You’re right, it’s because physics is a lot easier than biological chemistry, with a whole lot less factors to consider.
    That is even the way it is taught in school. Frank Millero’s Chemical Oceanography is the classic text book. But what everyone asks when they get out of school is “hey Frank, where are all those clean surfaces in the ocean where these simple chemical formulas are taking place”
    Chemical Oceanography completely falls apart when you add living things to it…

  27. This article scares me…
    I see more evidence that the warmists want to start geo-engineering the Earth. Since they are incapable of even understanding what it is doing, any attempt to tinker with it is doomed to great failure.
    The last person I want deciding what to change in the ocean is Al Gore or Mann…. Seriously.
    John Kehr

  28. As volcanic activity decreased, so did the silicates. Diatoms are the primary atmospheric nitrogen fixers.
    Phosphorus is still limiting.
    Just got back from the ASLO aquatic sciences meetings. I’ve never heard of diatoms fixng nitrogen. In aquatic systems, that’s usually done by cyanobacteria. For a number of chemical reasons, N fixation is easier in freshwater and more limited in marine environments, where N is often limiting.

  29. Latitude says:February 22, 2011 at 9:38 am
    quote
    As volcanic activity decreased, so did the silicates. Diatoms are the primary atmospheric nitrogen fixers.
    Phosphorus is still limiting.
    unquote
    Has silica run-off from agriculture altered the balance between calcareous phytos and diatoms? I’d really like to see an explanation of the cod population collapse on the Banks with the settlement of America and farming run-off involved. I _do_ like hypotheses with broad predictions and it would be pleasing to see cod fry failing because of diatom growth….
    JF
    JF

  30. Well, this makes it clear that one hell of a lot more money needs to be going into geological and biological sciences, e.g. basic research about the earth and its flora and fauna, than into climatology, which seems to be a perverse form of political science.

  31. From my perspective as a biologist, there is a great deal of research on the effects that climate change is having on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems around the world. Plants are extending their ranges northward in the northern hemisphere as are terrestrial animals. At the aquatic sciences meetings that I attended last week, there were quite a number of sessions of effects of climate change, past and present on lakes and oceans. Two of the plenary talks dealth with the Gulf of Mexico and effects of the BP blowout, while one with the consequences of declining ocean pH on animals with calcium carbonate skeletons, expecially corals and mollusks.

  32. As someone who studies plankton, I don’t understand Anthony’s title about “pollution.” Certainly this term was not part of the original article, and an increase in the earth’s atmopheric O2 at a time when it was low hardly seems like a problem. Don’t worry, the EPA would have such a knee jerk reaction to natural processes.

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