The real beast in the deep: Phytoplankton

For many years now, story-telling has been a prominent aspect of various human cultures of humanity. Amongst the tales and legends persists a fascination with the mysterious nature of the dark ocean depths. Dangerous, mythical creatures like the Kraken, Loch Ness Monster, Moby Dick and Jaws have, and continue to, captivate minds. Yet, a far more dangerous creature has evaded these notions while spreading throughout the entirety of the oceans, phytoplankton.

These little critters exist at the bottom of the food chain, a predator to nothing and prey to everything that deems them delectable. This is the aquatic food web’s primary producer, feeding organisms ranging in size from massive whales to the microscopic. The aquatic life that doesn’t directly feed on phytoplankton, preys on organisms that do.

So far, so scary. Although tiny, the mass number of phytoplankton is what makes them so dangerous. Life, in all forms, is overwhelmingly dependent on these dedicated providers, and climate change has targeted this vulnerable population — a key component to bringing chaos to our planet.

According to National Geographic News, along with the aquatic food chain heavily relying on this source of nutrition, scientists suggest phytoplankton provide about 50 percent of the world’s oxygen supply. Other scientists propose up to 85 percent of earth’s oxygen comes from this sole provider. Either way, if you like to breathe, phytoplankton is owed some appreciation.

The manner in which oxygen is produced by our little organisms is photosynthesis, a process that uses energy from the sun and other surrounding nutrients to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Unfortunately, our friends are under some extreme heat, quite literally. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 1955, over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gasses has been stored in the ocean. Pair this with aquatic nutrients suffering from ocean pollution, and you have an environment unfit for the thriving of our naturally altruistic phytoplankton.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University found that the phytoplankton population has already suffered some major casualties, with a global population declining 40 percent since 1950. This decline in the ocean’s most abundant food source echoes throughout the entirety of the food web, all the way to us humans who find a seafood dish delightful.

Of all the proposed beasts that linger in the ocean, this little organism ought to be feared the most. For without the continued large-scale presence of phytoplankton, severe global consequences are likely to follow.