These microscopic phytoplankton can be seen from space. And they're disappearing rapidly.

Have you ever thought to yourself, "Man, oxygen is so cool. It lets me breath, it keeps my heart and lungs healthy, who do I have to thank for this stuff?"

Well the answer to that is simple. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis, which is why trees and plants get a lot of their due credit here on land.

But wait ... there's more!


Fresh oxygen! Get your fresh hot oxygen here! Photo by Alberto Restifo/Unsplash.

Phytoplankton are the unsung heroes of all that delicious O2 we breathe.

Phytoplankton are mostly invisible to the naked eye and live in the ocean's surface. Just like trees and plants, these one-celled creatures soak up energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into nutrients. The byproduct of that process is fresh oxygen, which is released into the water.

Scientists estimate that phytoplankton actually produce about half the world's oxygen.

A phytoplankton cloud surrounding the Florida Keys. Photo by NASA/AFP/Getty Images.

But, unfortunately, phytoplankton might be in some serious trouble.

A new study has revealed that phytoplankton populations in the Indian Ocean have decreased up to 30% over the last 16 years. Which is a big problem for those of us who enjoy breathing.

What's to blame for the plummet of the phytoplankton population?

According to the researchers, warming of the ocean's surface has led to a decline in ocean mixing — which is the process by which nutrients are carried from the ocean depths up to the surface. Phytoplankton die off when their access to these nutrients is restricted.

Because phytoplankton are a key part of a very complicated oceanic food web, the implications of their demise could be disastrous.


This NASA map from 1998 is a scan of plant life all over the Earth. The neon green areas in the oceans show where phytoplankton can be found. AFP/AFP/Getty Images.

“If you reduce the bottom of the food chain, it’s going to cascade,” Raghu Murtugudde, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland in College Park told Science News.

When one part of an ecosystem disappears, the whole thing is in danger of collapsing. Murtugudde added that the decrease in phytoplankton may be partly responsible for tuna catch rates declining by up to 90% in the Indian Ocean over the last five decades.

The Indian Ocean has been steadily warming for years, taking a serious toll on the marine ecosystem.

The Indian ocean has become the place that absorbs the most excess heat generated by increasing greenhouse gases, according to a study conducted by climate scientists in India.

That study also shows that, currently, the Indian Ocean is projected to keep warming, while phytoplankton populations continue declining. This warm water has the potential to be carried to other oceans where it will have dramatic and lasting effects.

"If this warm blob of water in upper Indian Ocean is transported all the way to North Atlantic, that could affect the melting of Arctic sea ice," Sang-Ki Lee, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies told The Guardian. "That can also increase hurricane activity and influence the effects of drought in the US."

A satellite photo composite showing multiple cyclones forming over the Indian Ocean in 2003. Photo by Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA/GSFC/Getty Images.

This problem might seem far away, but it actually hits extremely close to home.

Just because the decrease of phytoplankton is happening in an ocean in a different hemisphere doesn't mean people in America aren't affected by it.

It's also easy to forget sometimes that we human beings are an integral part of the world's ecosystems. Phytoplankton might be microscopic, but they play a huge role in our ability to live.

Not only do phytoplankton produce the oxygen we breath, they're also a food source for the fish we eat and a key part of the marine ecosystem that keeps our oceans thriving.

#savetheplankton. Photo by HO/AFP/Getty Images.

The Indian Ocean is now a case study for the oceanic effects of global warming, Murtugudde says. "[It] must thus be monitored closely for clues about the response of the marine ecosystems in the rest of the world oceans.”

We're all a part of the same planet. And that's not just a tree-hugging hippie slogan. It's a literal truth. We are affected by and connected to every living thing around us. Even a microscopic organism on the other side of the world.

Photo via NOAA MESA Project/Wikimedia Commons.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Texas Representative James Talarico is on a mission to get his constituents the life-saving medicine they need. The 31-year-old lawmaker has just introduced legislation that would cap the price of insulin—a medicine people with type 1 diabetes need to live, which has become unaffordable for many—at $50 a month.

The mission is personal for Talarico, as he nearly died three years ago when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

He shared his story on Twitter:

"In May 2018, I was a healthy 28-year-old running for the Texas House. I decided to walk the entire length of my district and hold town halls along the way. I hike Big Bend every year, so I wasn't concerned about a 25 mile walk...

But halfway through the walk, I began feeling nauseous and fatigued. Before the town hall in Hutto, I vomited in the bathroom."

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less