8.7 Million Species Run Spaceship Earth and Our Life Support System

Charonia tritonis Credit: David Burdick

We share the planet with 8.7 million species. We’re unconcerned about the ongoing loss of 200 species a day since we fail to realize they are our life support system. And we don’t know how many or which species are needed to keep things running. There is metaphor in the article to make that clearer I hope. We are not even close to coming to grips with this issue.  — Stephen

“If the decline in species around us is not significant then I ask what is?”

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Aug 23, 2011 (IPS)

 The life support system that generates the planet’s air, water, and food is powered by 8.7 million living species according to the newest and best estimate. We know next to nothing about 99 percent of those unique species – except that lots of them are going extinct.

“It is like a complicated engine where we only know about the major pieces. If we lose one or some of the small hidden pieces that play a critical role the engine might stop working,” said Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Many species may vanish before we even know of their existence, of their unique niche and function in ecosystems,” Mora told IPS.

Until now there wasn’t even a decent guesstimate about how many species exist currently: three million? 100 million? Now a new validated analytical technique has pined down the big number to 8.7 million species (give or take 1.3 million).

The analysis published Tuesday in the journal ‘PLoS Biology’ estimated there are 6.5 million species found on land and 2.2 million – about 25 percent of the total – dwelling in the ocean depths.

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“Not knowing the answer to this fundamental question really highlights our ignorance about life on this planet,” said Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, co-author of the study along with Mora.

“We’re so fixated on the human enterprise we don’t recognise nature’s enterprise… the 8.7 million species that run the planet and provide the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we grow our crops in,” Worm told IPS. “If the decline in species around us is not significant then I ask what is? This is all we have on this planet, the only planet that holds life.” Continue reading

Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

VIENNA, Jul 31, 2010 IPS

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week.

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

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Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading