Natural history of plankton and climate change

When you think of the ocean, I’m sure you imagine dolphins, whales, killer sharks, etc. Now take a drop of ocean water, just one drop. That one drop contains an entire ecosystem filled with life. The cute dolphins or whales or fish only represent 2% of the ocean’s living organisms. The other 98% contain a plethora of microorganisms, generally labeled plankton (deriving from the latin root “Planktos,” meaning drifter/wanderer). 

What do you think of when you hear plankton? A tiny diabolical copepod who roams the depths of the ocean in search of a Krabby Patty formula? Or maybe you think of a whale’s favorite snack? Okay, maybe both of those are technically correct. What if I told you that plankton is much more than that, that plankton is a key to the functionality of Earth, that without these tiny creatures the human race would disappear; if I told you this, you might think we better be aware of what happens to them; more importantly, what we do to them.

To give you quick visualization to the importance of plankton, think of a human cell. The cell is a microscopic thing you cannot see that contains the code to your DNA and dictates the entire function of your body, and with a simple mutation to the cell, the entire system can crash. 

Plankton are the equivalence to the functionality of Earth.

Plankton are fascinating organisms. From antiquity, plankton have directly affected the structure of Earth. When plankton die, they sink into the ocean sediment. With time, the accumulated sediments form rocks like limestone, chalk, opal, and cleverly named, radiolarian chert. Around the globe, we can find geological formations containing billions of these microorganisms. Ranging from the Franciscan Assemblage of the California Coast, to the white cliffs of Dover, England. This sedimentation has also been taken by humans to fuel westernization and industrialization, fossil fuels. 

Not only do plankton rule over the fabrication of Earth, they also have depicted what life exists on Earth, including us. At the beginning of life on Earth, these tiny opportunistic organisms were the first to learn how to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and metabolize it into the fuel for life, O2; this was how O2 originated on the planet, this is what allowed for the creation of complex forms of life, us.

In nature, when a species becomes dominant, nature finds a way to eliminate it. Humankind is the one exception to this law. We are largely dominant and dependent on the Earth, to very destructive degrees; yet, nature hasn’t found a way to eliminate. Instead, we are eliminating ourselves through our burning of fossil fuels and overall pollution. Plankton plays two very vital roles to the health of the human race. Firstly, plankton form the basis of the food chain; providing food to the fish we eat, they are irrefutably the most critical part of the entire food web. Secondly, they generate approximately 50% of O2 on the planet by removing the CO2 we emit into the atmosphere. This actively benefits the entirety of Earth and all of its species by alleviating the threat of climate change; however, the grand effort plankton make to remove CO2 is but a tiny fraction to the amount of CO2 we emit.

An emerging threat to the lifecycle and food chain are the increased presence of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) species, eutrophication, and now,  microplastics. As we continue large scale farming, emitting greenhouse gases, and discarding plastic, we are only suffocating the oxygen supply and poisoning the food supply. 

Now that all of your jaws have dropped, your hearts are wrenched, and you may feel hopeless, remember this feeling. This feeling you feel at this moment. It’s a beautiful feeling even if you don’t see it. This feeling means that you are human, that you care, that if you could end climate change and erase the pollution on Earth, you would. This feeling you feel will fuel change if you choose to keep it in mind. We are usually quick to forget the feeling, because it is easy, and because it hurts. But what do we know from hurt…. We learn.

So what can you do?

Know that humans are on Earth for a reason. Remember that through paleogenic destruction, there has been restoration and conservation: take a look at the entire Monterey Bay. Educate yourself, and educate others by starting conversations. ACTUALLY advocate and support organizations and politicians that align with your views. Use your social media platforms to promote something bigger than yourself. Volunteer with organizations like Clean Oceans International and Save Our Shores. Reduce your plastic usage on a daily basis. Take care of the earth as if it was your body, and most importantly, foster a love for our natural environment, and everything within it.

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