No, We Haven’t Killed 90% of Plankton in the Atlantic (Yet)

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You know who sucks? BOTH SIDES. You know, people who want bodily autonomy and people who want to force 10-year olds to give birth. People in antifa and people who are in whatever anti-antifa is. “Fa,” I guess. I wonder what that stands for. And yes, people who are worried about the irreversible damage humans are doing to the planet and people who value money more than human lives.

Okay, no, this isn’t a video equivocating “both sides” of the climate change “debate,” but I did find it interesting to stumble upon two equal but opposite viral forms of misinformation this week and I figured we may as well tackle them both at once.

First up, here’s an easy one: climate change deniers are passing around a Washington Post article from 1922 that relays the reports of fishermen, hunters, and explorers in the Arctic who say they’ve seen a dramatic drop in the amount of ice, along with fewer seals and fish. They claim the article closes with “within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coast cities uninhabitable.” That last bit is a fabrication, but the first bit about explorers et al reporting less ice and food in the Arctic is true, because THAT IS HOW WEATHER WORKS. There have always been temporary swings in temperature around the world. CLIMATE change is about long term, more permanent changes that can only be seen by carefully collecting a lot of data from various sources over many years, which scientists have continued to do for several centuries now so they can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the Earth is warming and it’s due to human activity.

This is like someone trying to downplay the US’s regular mass shooting problem by digging up an article from The Star in 1888 describing a man who murdered five women in London. AHA, this happened BEFORE assault weapons were common, therefore assault weapons are NOT the cause of mass murders! Checkmate liberals! No, don’t be an idiot: step back, look at ALL the data we have, and notice the trends we see happening across the intervening centuries.

Okay, now it’s time for “the other side.” I saw a piece go viral this week claiming that researchers found we have all but wiped out plankton in the Atlantic ocean. This claim originated in the mainstream media over at the Sunday Post, a weekly Scottish tabloid that reported that “the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation,” an Edinburgh-based research team, spent two years collecting water samples from the Atlantic, finding that a shocking 90% of the ocean’s plankton is now gone.

Now, this would be hugely upsetting, if it were true, which it is not. Plankton truly is the backbone of our planet: literally every other breath you take is thanks to plankton. Phytoplankton is the collection of microscopic bits of algae, bacteria, and other random thingies that not only produce 50% of our oxygen, but also provide the food source for slightly bigger kinds of zooplankton like krill, which then provide the food source for way bigger thingies like whales, which then provide the food source for human dickheads. And also sharks I guess. Anyway, circle of life, yadda yadda.

So yeah if we suddenly lost 90% of the stuff that provides us with 50% of our oxygen, that would be a very big deal! Also, we probably would have noticed? But okay, let’s take a quick look at the “research” this Sunday Post article is based on. Let’s see, they cite the “Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation,” and link to their website, which then links to the “report” titled “Climate change…have we got it all wrong?” which was published in the journal…nothing, nowhere, it has not been published anywhere, meaning it has not been peer reviewed and this entire thing is a preprint, though the word “preprint” suggests it may be printed somewhere in the future which I can’t imagine is true because this “paper” also includes no information about how or where they conducted their sampling and what exactly led them to state “that losses closer to 90% have occurred, and these are due to chemical pollution

from, for example, wastewater and not climate change. “

Their website does feature a “citizen science” project where they suggest anyone with a yacht go out and collect ocean samples and send them the results, so…okay. By the way, try to avoid collecting the samples while wearing your fleece because it “sheds many plastic particles.  Probably not a good idea wearing a fleece in any case,  because you will be breathing in plastic from your clothes.”

So there you go, I guess this crucial, extremely upsetting catastrophic research is being carried out by random yacht owners with no oversight apart from that of the guy who runs the “Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation,” Dr. Howard Dryden who as far as I can see has published pretty much no peer-reviewed papers in reputable journals apart from this review of the water filtration system in the penguin enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo, published in the International Zoo Yearbook of 1994.

And now, a word about Howard Dryden: in addition to being the face of the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation, his “about” page reports that he is also responsible for several products related to filtering plastics and “chemicals” out of water, like “Dryden Aqua” filtration systems. I’m not going to say that this is the main reason why Global Oceanic Environmental Survey Foundation titled their paper “Climate change…have we got it all wrong” and repeatedly insists that we shouldn’t really care that much about carbon and climate change because it’s really WASTEWATER that is the problem, in fact we will all probably BENEFIT from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and really we need to get the plastics and the chemicals out of our wastewater somehow, like I don’t know, maybe through some kind of filtration system?” I could never say for certain that Dryden’s primary goal is to sell his shit, but I will say yeah actually that’s super shady.

So if we can’t trust this rando who claims 90% of all plankton in the Atlantic is gone, who can we trust? Well, how about the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey, a robust, prestigious, and important project that has been running for nearly a CENTURY and which gives us a comprehensive understanding of how the plankton population has changed since 1931, and especially over the past 70 years that they’ve used the exact same method of data collection to provide continuity from year to year. Some of their findings show, for instance, that due to climate change, warmer water plankton species are migrating northward, which may have led to one particular zooplankton species in the North Sea declining by 70%. They’ve also been monitoring ocean acidification and have found that while it isn’t a problem in the open ocean right now, they’re seeing signs that it could become a leading driver of climate change soon. Similarly, they consider the phytoplankton population of the North Atlantic is “fairly healthy” at the moment, but that particular vulnerable areas may be seeing some trouble, and they’re finding more microplastics and more frequent harmful algae blooms. A big takeaway seems to be that careful researchers don’t tend to make any sweeping generalizations about what is happening to “plankton” in “the Atlantic Ocean”: that’s a LOT of different species in a terrifically huge area that doesn’t behave in a homogenous way.

You may think that Dryden and the Sunday Post piece are no big deal, because at least they might spur people to go in the right direction: toward caring more about what’s happening to our oceans. But falsely saying that 90% of plankton is GONE isn’t going to make people care more so much as it’s going to make people throw their hands in the air and give up. Like, there’s no coming back from that, right? Goodbye, planet.

Additionally, this is just absolutely perfect fodder for climate change deniers: on the one hand, you have a “scientist” pushing the narrative that it’s not so much about carbon and human-caused global warming, but just about plastic and nebulous “chemicals” draining into the ocean. On the other hand, you have a really easily debunked lie that deniers can point to and say “See? The people who want you to care about this are just making things up! You can’t believe anything they say.”

So I hope if you see this bit of “doomerism” popping up on your social media feed, you rebut it or at least don’t spread it. It won’t help anyone, except maybe water filtration salesmen.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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