If we humans are to thrive on this planet, we need to nurture the living systems that make it possible – and that includes the plankton.
“Plankton?” you say. “What has plankton got to do with anything? What is a plankton, anyway?”
Plankton are the tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) organisms that drift around the ocean. Most are so small that you need a microscope to see them, although some, like jellyfish can get very big. What defines the plankton is that they can not move horizontally through the water – they drift and wander with the tide.
There are two broad types of plankton: plant and animal plankton.
The animal plankton are called zooplankton. Some zooplankton are baby versions of various animals. Others are species that will always be small.
The other type of plankton are plants, referred to as phytoplankton. Because they are plants, the phytoplankton combine CO2 and water in the presence of sunlight to create sugars that they use to grow their bodies.
Because they photosynthesize, phytoplankton produce oxygen. In fact, the phytoplankton produce half of all the oxygen in the atmosphere. Think about that as you inhale. With every breath, you are absorbing into your bloodstream oxygen that has passed through the metabolic pathway of plankton. This is not some small detail. Every other breath, you owe a debt of gratitude to tiny marine plants.
Plankton absorb CO2 from the ocean, and this is replaced by CO2 from the air. The carbon from the CO2 is absorbed into their bodies. Some of the phytoplankton die and sink to the ocean floor and sequester atmospheric carbon. In this way, plankton help to keep the climate stable.
Some phytoplankton produce a chemical gas called di-methyl sulfide, or DMS. This is a very light molecule that rises into the air where it can form the nucleus upon which water can condense. In this way, plankton help to form clouds. From the clouds come the rain that falls on our farmlands and helps to grow food.
Plankton help to provide us with food in other ways. As the lower level of the marine food chain, ultimately, all the other animals feed on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton feed our seafood.
By now, you’ll probably have gathered that plankton are pretty important, not just to the things in the ocean, but to the people, as well.
PLANKTON we can’t live without them
With all this going on, you would think that phytoplankton would be in for some sort of United Nations award for service to humanity. Or at least have a day named after them: Plankton Day.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that because we humans are devoid of plankton humility. In fact, not only do we not respect the plankton, in the last 50 years, we have killed off 40% of them due to climate change making the sea temperature increase.
Humans are the only species that burns things, and we burn billions of tons of coal and oil and gas, every year. This adds CO2 gas to the atmosphere and the CO2 gas absorbs heat that would otherwise waft into space. Most of that heat ends up in the ocean where the plankton live. We can have coal and fossil fuels or we can have plankton. We need to make the right choice.
Unless we stop burning fossil fuels and pull much of the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere – quickly, we are going to end up with so little plankton in the ocean that all the processes listed above stop working. The scientists tell us that we are losing 1% of the plankton every year – and we have already lost nearly half. You do the math.
If we humans are to survive on this planet, we need to adopt a belief system that treats plankton as sacred and fosters actions that help to regrow them back in the ocean.
Eearth is a new system of values and beliefs that is devoted to environmental sustainability and human happiness.
You might consider adopting Eearth today. See the website to learn more: