The Ocean Wins Again

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I took a lot of flak last year for my post saying that the global 50% drop in phytoplankton claimed by Boyce et. al was an illusion. I had said:

So where did the Nature paper go wrong?

The short answer is that I don’t know … but I don’t believe their results. The paper is very detailed, in particular the Supplementary Online Information (SOI). It all seems well thought out and investigated … but I don’t believe their results. They have noted and discussed various sources of error. They have compared the use of Secchi disks as a proxy, and covered most of the ground clearly … and I still don’t believe their results.

In other words, I took my chances on my experience and went way, way out on a limb with my statements. And of course, people didn’t let me forget it.

 Figure 1. Life Cycle of Phytoplankton

Now we get these two Brief Communications Arising, from Nature magazine (emphasis mine).

Nature  Volume: 472, Pages:  E6–E7 

Brief Communication Arising (April, 2011) Arising from D. G. Boyce, M. R. Lewis & B. Worm Nature 466, 591–596 (2010)

Phytoplankton account for approximately 50% of global primary production, form the trophic base of nearly all marine ecosystems, are fundamental in trophic energy transfer and have key roles in climate regulation, carbon sequestration and oxygen production. Boyce et al.1 compiled a chlorophyll index by combining in situ chlorophyll and Secchi disk depth measurements that spanned a more than 100-year time period and showed a decrease in marine phytoplankton biomass of approximately 1% of the global median per year over the past century. Eight decades of data on phytoplankton biomass collected in the North Atlantic by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey2, however, showan increase in an index of chlorophyll (Phytoplankton Colour Index) in both the Northeast and Northwest Atlantic basins3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (Fig. 1), and other long-term time series, including the Hawaii Ocean Time-series (HOT)8, the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series (BATS)8 and the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI)9 also indicate increased phytoplankton biomass over the last 20–50 years. These findings, which were not discussed by Boyce et al.1, are not in accordance with their conclusions and illustrate the importance of using consistent observations when estimating long-term trends.

Along with this one:

Nature 472, E5–E6 (14 April 2011)

Brief Communication Arising (April, 2011) Arising from D. G. Boyce, M. R. Lewis & B. Worm Nature 466, 591–596 (2010)

… Closer examination reveals that time-dependent changes in sampling methodology combined with a consistent bias in the relationship between in situ and transparency-derived chlorophyll (Chl) measurements generate a spurious trend in the synthesis of phytoplankton estimates used by Boyce et al.1. Our results indicate that much, if not all, of the century-long decline reported by Boyce et al. is attributable to this temporal sampling bias and not to a global decrease in phytoplankton biomass.

OK, so I was right. The Boyce paper was nonsense, the claimed trend was spurious, plankton biomass is holding somewhere near steady or even increasing, and a number of independent records show that the Boyce et al. paper is garbage built on bad assumptions.

I bring this up for three reasons. The first is to show the continuing shabby quality of peer-review at scientific magazines when the subject is even peripherally related to climate. Nature magazine blew it again, and unfortunately, these days that’s no news at all. It’s just more shonky science from the AGW crowd … and people claim the reason the public doesn’t trust climate scientists is a “communications problem”? It’s not. It’s a garbage science problem, and all the communications theory in the world won’t fix garbage science.

The second reason I posted this is just because I enjoy it when it turns out that I’m right, particularly on a risky statement made with no data and in the face of opposition, and I wanted to enter that fact into the record. Childish, I know, but at least I’m adult enough to admit it.

The third reason is a bit more complex. It is to emphasize the value of actual experience. I didn’t disbelieve Boyce et al. because I had any data. I had no data at all.

What I did have was a lifetime spent on and under the ocean. Phytoplankton form the basis of all life in the ocean. If the phytoplankton had actually gone down by 50%, all life in the ocean would have gone down by 50% … and my experience said no way that was true. Fish catches haven’t gone down like that, numbers of species on the reef and along the coast haven’t gone down like that, I would have noticed, people around the world would have been screaming about it.

So I put my neck on the chopping block, and I trusted my experience … and in the end, despite the people who laughed at me and abused my claims, my experience won out over Boyce’s “science”.

Does this mean that we should always trust our experience over science? Don’t be daft. Science is hugely valuable, and often shows that our experience has misled us completely.

But far too many scientists forget to check the obvious – their own experience. Not one of the Boyce authors thought “Wait a minute … since the oceans live almost entirely off the phytoplankton, if plankton is down by half why haven’t I seen oceanic populations from krill to whales and octopuses dropping by half?” Or perhaps they just didn’t have the experience to check the obvious.

The moral of this story? Well, the moral for me is that trusting my experience over the “science” of high-powered scientists living in an ivory tower far above the ocean worked out well … this time.

But the real moral is that scientists need to pay more attention to the “laugh test”. I know when I first heard the Boyce claim, I busted out laughing … and when our experience is that strong in saying that science is wrong, it’s likely worth checking out.


ADDED LATER For me, there’s a few tests that I apply regularly that seem to not be applied by far too many mainstream AGW supporting scientists. These are the smell test, the laugh test, and the eyeball test.

The laugh test weeds out the worst, like the preposterous claim that plankton had been decreasing by 1% per year for the last century. The “Rule of 70” gives the doubling time for an investment. You divide 70 by the annual interest rate, and that gives the doubling time in years.

The Rule of Seventy gives seventy years for doubling time at 1%, so that means in a hundred years the total biomass of the ocean has decreased by more than 50% … seriously, I laughed. The biomass of the ocean decreased by more than half and nobody noticed until now?

The smell test is more subtle. It depends on the provenance of the information, and the way it has been handled, whether it looks “natural”, the history of the investigators, and the like. While the smell test can’t reject anything, it shows me where to look for something wrong.

The eyeball test is simple. Look at every single dataset. There is absolutely no substitute for the experienced human eye. You say there’s seven thousand of them? Boo hoo. You can’t just make up an algorithm and apply it without seeing what it does to every single station record. If there’s a large number, I just write a program in R that just flashes them on the screen for a second along with an ID number. I just let it roll, and jot down the numbers of the ones that stand out.

Now before anyone starts screaming about computerized checking, yes, they are extremely valuable. I’m a whiz at error-trapping, anomaly finding, and computerized checking in a variety of computer languages.

But computerized checking is only as good as the person who wrote the computerized checks. And until you understand every different way that your data might be contaminated or tainted or erroneous for a host of reasons, you will not be able to write computerized checks to identify those particular errors.

And the only way to do that is to put each and every dataset to the eyeball test. There’s an example of what I mean in my post When Good Proxies Go Bad over at ClimateAudit. (Y’all should definitely visit ClimateAudit, Steve McIntyre is continuing his amazing exposition of the never-ending revelations of the “hide the decline” fandango …)


newest oldest most voted
Notify of
R. Shearer

Reality bites.

Well done Willis! As one Warmist activist recently admitted, “the sceptics have more knowledgeable folks on their side”!!!!


I agree, a lifetime of experience decloaks a lot of the Global Warming myths too.
A lifetime of watching the weather in California since the mid 60’s tells me that there was a very warm period from the late 70’s to about 5 years ago. Then the bottom fell out, and the weather is very much like before, and it got there fast. It’s rather cool.
No warmest evers.

James Sexton

Glad to see that follow-up. Instincts, is what I believe sent most of the skeptics to investigate the science of climatology. Given the number of studies refuted, invalidated and different perspectives presented by the skeptics, we can state, the skepticism has been warranted.
Good job again Willis.

Political Observer

Mr. Eschenbach
Since Mann nearly every AGW researcher is desperate to get his or her’s 15 minutes of fame. It appears that these researchers were taking every step they could to make their findings bulletproof – hence all of the requisite scientific methodologies to squelch the skeptics. As you so rightly point out, science is more than just data and techniques.
Congratulations on your scientific approach.


Some of my staff get very confused when I speak to them of “wisdom”- not just knowledge, but the understanding of how and when (and when not) to apply that knowledge. I struggle with the means by which wisdom can be imparted/taught – as it would help stop people making “idiot mistakes”.
Increasingly, I fear that it (wisdom) can only be learnt (and then only by some) at personal cost while attending the University of Life.


Nice Willis! Good for you.
Nice on Dr. Boyce also. Any person who can admit when they’re wrong (listening Team members?) is a stand-up character in my book. I will look forward to Dr. Boyce’s next paper, as I am sure that it will be far better. Life lessons are only really learned by making mistakes and then owning them!


The only thing I could think if that might reduce plankton populations is the absolutely astounding rebound of some of the species that graze on them.
Some species of whale have returned to pre-whaling numbers in many areas of the ocean and are currently at about the limit their food supply can maintain. Adult whales are limited in population only by their food supplies, they have no natural predators. As they reach the maximum carrying population of their environments, I would expect to see “over grazing” of certain plankton species.
As more areas of the ocean reach maximum carrying capacity for whale populations, we should expect to see a general decline in the health of the herds and “boom/bust” population cycles as changes in ocean conditions occur. This would be analogous to deer populations or any other grazing species that eventually over populates their food supply with no predators to keep the adult population in check.

The Total Idiot

Experience is a useful tool. Wisdom comes from that experience, including the wisdom to check your answers… and to present them to others, who disagree with you, to check them as well.
There is no friend so great to your opinions as a person who is willing to cut your opinions to the quick, and expose your biases and fallacies. Without that introspection and that ‘boot to the head’ (with apologies to the Frantics) science cannot progress.
Echo chambers are not science. Science is the bitter war, the conflict between experience and knowledge, with the ideas flying and the most accurate winning out.. not by ‘consensus’ but by testable assertions with falsifiable outcomes. The truth must out, not by actions of law, forbidding questions, but by actions of investigation, question, introspection, and conversation.
If the only means by which you may convince others of the truth is the law… then you have not a truth, but a firmly held zealotry.

Doug in Seattle

Childish, I know, but at least I’m adult enough to admit it.
Maybe, but ain’t vindication sweet?


My high school physics teacher taught me the “Principle of Least Astonishment”: Does an answer make sense in the context of everything you know?
This principle has served me well over the years. Some scientists seem to have forgotten this, or never learned it.

Some of this “AGW Science” needs to pass the sniff test as well.


Trust your instincts first Willis…..
That and your common sense order for phyto to have gone down, something would have to be limiting.
Running down a quick check list of what would be limiting turns up nothing.

much, if not all, of the century-long decline reported by Boyce et al. is attributable to this temporal sampling bias
Are we looking at the same Fourier analysis problem I brought up April 2 in “Expect the Best..” By choosing small segments of time series, you eliminate the low frequency part of the information. I believe that low frequency is lost forever. After you re-splice a bunch of short time series together, the only low frequency component in the data is a pure result of the method and bias in your splicing of the shorter segments and cannot be trusted as representing reality.
If I am wrong, I’d love for someone with a background in information theory or signal processing to set me straight. To me, transforming the problem into the Fourier domain makes the folly of short temporal segments obvious.


Sometimes, having a good gestalt of a ecosystem is more valuable than having a lot of individual measurements. Even if your gestalt is wrong, it makes you look at the measurements and methodology a lot more critically.

James Sexton

@ scott
“Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience.”——- James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

Theo Goodwin

Great work, Willis! Yes, climate science produces a huge amount of garbage science. And it practitioners suffer a vast lack of experience, as is evident in WUWT comments often. As regards the paper itself, I could only say “C’est l’absurd!”

J Bunt

One must learn to think well, before learning to think; afterwards, it proves too difficult.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to excapte finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” The unskilled therfore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is.
The above sums up most AGW gurus.

Green Sand

Childish, I know, but at least I’m adult enough to admit it.
Magic, Willis, pure magic.

Jeff Carlson

when you set out to be a scientist and never spend anytime learning about your subject firsthand or gathering your own data you run the risk of this sort …
science starts with reliable data gathered by a known source, preferably you personally … and it starts with raw data, not data adjusted by others …
this idea that general knowledge can the translated down to specific knowledge has been the linch pin of Climate Science for too long …
It sucks that you really need to spend years getting immersed in your subject matter but I don’t see any way around that … its called hard work and I don’t see much of it in the Climate Science community …

Phil's Dad

No one under 50 should ever be allowed to make a decision that affects someone else.


Wonky science isn’t science. You used a simple test performed hundreds of millions of times each day: Does the answer make sense?
It is one of the basic tests that almost all arrived results are subject to, and one of the first skills good problem solvers develop is to frame accurately what “sense” means.
You used your experience to form “sense” and then compared an unrealistic answer to it to form a conclusion that the result is unreasonable and the method should be examined.
That’s science.


I think Mr Eschenbach might have added a fourth reason for his evident satisfaction over this.
It has long been the custom of AGW alarmists to publicly deride and dismiss any dissent over their ‘approved’ research as the work of cranks/politically/financially motivated morons.
This is an instance to enjoy another dent made in their pseudo-scientific armour, but don’t hold your breath for acknowledgement in the ‘official’ publications.
Nice one.

Brian M. Flynn

Last October 6, Anthony posted, “Ocean color affects tropical cyclone formation” about AGU published research, which read in part, “The absorption of sunlight is affected by the concentration of chlorophyll, with the Sun’s heat penetrating deeper in clear, low-chlorophyll waters…researchers note other research suggesting that 1960s chlorophyll levels in the Pacific were about 50 percent lower than at present.”
My question: Is the albedo of our oceans changing to reflect more than retain heat?

Jimmy Haigh

Nice one Willis. Intuition combined with experience is hard to beat. That’s why ‘climate science’ is so far out: as a discipline it has no experience.
I always say that a week in the field is worth far more than a year in a book.


From the “Others Would Have Bragged” category, try this. Sometime in 2000, I became aware of the hockey stick argument. When I saw the actual graph, my first thoughts were: this just isn’t real, where did this science come from, what are they trying to say, why is it so smooth, why so much spaghetti?
The things that jumped out at me were: the scale of the graph in 1 degree increments, lack of error bounds, where does one proxy starts & others ends, where do the thermometer reading begin?
It was a highly confusing chart for such a monumental “discovery.”
I just couldn’t believe the implication of the “science.” And, lastly I wondered, what the heck is the meaning of an average global temperature? The average temperature over the whole atmosphere? Everywhere? From the sea level up? Ugh?

richard telford

“If the phytoplankton had actually gone down by 50%, all life in the ocean would have gone down by 50%”
If primary productivity had gone down by 50%, there would have been major ecological consequences. But that wasn’t what the paper argued, it argued that plankton biomass had gone down, and the link between plankton biomass and productivity does not have to be very strong. For example, if there are many zooplankton, they can potentially graze the phytoplankton until there is little left, but what remains could be highly productive.
“experience” is only so useful a tool, and is almost as likely to fool us as help us.


So, Willis, what is your theory on the reason behind pouring out all this voodoo science?
There must be a reason for it. When “Der Mauer” and DDR disappeared, so did The Red Brigade and other terror organisations in the west. Because the puppet masters disappeared.
But who are the puppet masters here?


I laughed when I saw the hockey stick graph, for exactly the same reasons. Experience and general knowledge of history. Especially, medieval history, and the importance of the medieval warm period and the little ice age.

Alberta Slim

Excellent Willis.
Keep it up.
ETC. ETC. [Expose The Charlatans]


” Science is belief in the ignorance of experts.”
Richard Feynman

The really frightening thing is that the Consensus of Scientists are mired in garbage science. Our species is growing stupider thanks to the modern Rise of Superstition and Apocalyptic Panic masquerading as rationality. The oceans will survive, but Homo stupidus nee sapiens may not. We are dumbing ourselves down to self-extinction.


You have good intuition for numbers sir! I keep seeing a cartoon with you up a very tall tree, way out on a limb busy sawing away at the limb. Then the whole tree falls and your little piece of limb just levitates.
Willis: ” I know this violates the law of gravity but you see I never studied law.”
Keep up the good work.


Someone with experience, as opposed to and “expert” will usually do a “smell test” before accepting something. If it doesn’t seem right you need to double check to make sure it’s not bad. Obviously the Nature editors lack a sense of smell.


Latitude says:
April 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm
Trust your instincts first Willis…..
That and your common sense order for phyto to have gone down, something would have to be limiting.
Running down a quick check list of what would be limiting turns up nothing.
Phytoplankton taking over the oceans due to increased dissolved CO2 would’ve been a far better scare story !! They blew it.
Maybe the rebuttal guys are ……. oooooh errrrm …. testing the waters ??


At least Nature was willing to publish several of these comments. They could have, I assume, simply rejected the comments and denied that many in the scientific community were questioning the methods applied. Perhaps the Boyce paper should not have been published, but it was. The fact that Nature was willing to show that it wasn’t such a solid story gives me some hope that better science eventually rises to the surface, even in a sensationalized journal like Nature.


Reality is around us. Some Scientists are so deep in their theories and aristocracy of PhD’s they forget to use the plain simple “smell test” .
Which is available to anyone, so as aristocrats they despise it.

Peter Miller

Many of us, through long experience, develop an instinctive internal BSometer, similar to what Willis is describing here.
I like to think I can claim to have a fully functioning BSometer in regards to mineral deposits, now that I am in my early sixties.
Amongst the many problems the Team and wannabe Team members have is that they are increasingly setting off the BSometers in individuals – not necessarily scientists -who are not only smarter than them, but also not reliant on financial sustenance from government grant troughs.
But let us not forget Rule No 1 of the AGW cult: AGW causes everything, both normal and abnormal, so everything needs a grant in order to be investigated.

Jim Barker

Good science can not exist without healthy skepticism. Being correct is a good thing too. Well done, Willis.

Pat Moffitt

A decline in phytoplankton would have presented a problem to the EPA’s and NGOs’ current push to enact restrictive nutrient TMDLs (permitted total maximum daily load) that presume increasing nutrient loads and temperature are creating “accelerated” harmful rates of eutrophication (simplistically- an increase in phytoplankton).
Nitrogen pollution is the new CO2—and with it EPA can actually achieve what it hoped to do with CO2. Almost every human activity in some way alters the nitrogen cycle. If you restrict the allowable amount of nitrogen you can control development, agriculture, transportation, fossil fuel power etc. There are so many similarities– especially the sensitivity issue. Watch this one!

Willis, you write:
“Does this mean that we should always trust our experience over science? Don’t be daft. Science is hugely valuable, and often shows that our experience has misled us completely.”
One thing that people do not realize is that if nobody writes their own and other people’s experiences down, there would be no books for scientists to learn their science from.

Willis , you, you… Secchi disk denier you!
This episode illustrates just how fragile many people believe the Earth and it’s ecosystems are, that a small temperature rise of about 0.7C per century, is enough to decimate whole ecosystems on a global scale.
Glad you wrote this up, I had one in the que. No need now. Well done sir.

Werner Brozek

Many people would agree that about half of our man-made CO2 ends up in the air with the other half either going into the ocean or increasing photosynthesis in plants. Since plants on land grow better due to higher concentrations of CO2, it would only be logical that phytoplankton in the ocean would also grow faster due to more CO2 in the ocean. This also has implications for ocean acidification, or more accurately, a very slight lowering of pH which is still in the basic range. Would anyone have 20 year old predictions of what the pH of the ocean is expected to be now versus what it actually is? My guess is that the pH would be higher than expected due to more phytoplankton using more CO2.

Willis Eschenbach

The Total Idiot says:
April 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Experience is a useful tool. Wisdom comes from that experience, including the wisdom to check your answers… and to present them to others, who disagree with you, to check them as well.

Wisdom allows us to make less mistakes. Unfortunately, the same wisdom is generally purchased at the cost of my early iterations of those self-same mistakes …


Yet another case of “irrational exuberance”


This is an example of something that constantly concerns me.
That being that far too many people who blindly follow peer reviewed articles seem unable, or unwilling, to compare what they are led to believe with what often can be observed in the real physical world around them.

Boyce et al…. showed a decrease in marine phytoplankton biomass of approximately 1% of the global median per year over the past century.
That wouldn’t have left much, would it?

Good one Willis!
Many scientists undoubtedly get so immersed in the minutae of their world that they forget to raise their eyes and look around them or, even more important, take a few steps back and say “Does that make sense?

Pat Moffitt

Richard Telford,
You are correct—phytoplankton biomass is a function of grazing (among others). It is not always a representative analog for total eco-system biomass. I like to show a picture of a fenced in field of waist high grass and another of a cropped pasture with sheep and ask -which has the higher productivity?


Stephen Rasey says:
April 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm
“I believe that low frequency is lost forever. After you re-splice a bunch of short time series together, the only low frequency component in the data is a pure result of the method and bias in your splicing of the shorter segments and cannot be trusted as representing reality.”
Very good reasoning. It remains to be seen what BEST produces. I don’t trust Muller (with his geo-engineering links and all…). He might come up with a method that he can play like a fiddle; becoming a Hansen re-incarnate.