Algae under Arctic sea ice - ‘certainly not going to solve our CO2 problem’
- 12 Jun 2012, 14:00
- Verity Payne
Algae under the sea ice: NASA
We've found a 'solution' to the problem of increasing
atmospheric carbon dioxide - or at least we have according to
commentators, who have made an impressive leap of reasoning
from scientists discovering large algal blooms beneath thinning
Arctic sea ice, to the suggestion that the blooms might "stave off
the effects of global warming."
It's quite a claim. The reality is somewhat different, as we
found out when we checked with the scientist who conducted the
new paper, published in the journal Science last week, reveals
that scientists have unexpectedly found big blooms of algae beneath
Arctic sea ice. It seems that the thinning Arctic sea ice lets
sunlight penetrate through to the ocean below, allowing these
light-dependent algae to thrive and to grow faster than similar
blooms out in open water.
The research paper says that the presence of these fast-growing
algal blooms means that the amount of photosynthesis occurring in
the Arctic Ocean has probably been underestimated, and might be as
much as ten times higher than previously suggested.
Since photosynthesis is the process by which algae draws carbon
dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the ocean, this algae growth
might provide a negative feedback to Arctic sea ice melt, with
more algae trapping more carbon dioxide, meaning there's
less carbon dioxide available to cause warming.
It's entirely feasible that there might be a negative
temperature feedback from the algae, although it seems unlikely
that it would be big enough to counteract 'Arctic
amplification' - the Arctic is warming at about twice the
global rate, largely thanks to the
loss of sea ice.
And a negative feedback which slows climate change slightly is a
very different thing to 'solving' the problem altogether. The
Science paper does not claim that these blooms are going to solve
global warming, and more research is needed to fully determine the
impact of this finding on global carbon cycles and the Arctic
We spoke with Professor Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University, a
lead author of the paper. He told us:
"It is a negative feedback, but a very
small one. It certainly is not going to solve our CO2 problem!"
So there you go - claims of this being a solution to our carbon
dioxide problem are overselling the conclusions of this research by
quite some way.
As an aside, we've
pointed out that a significant amount of the Daily Mail's
coverage of climate science over the past few months has been
inaccurate, based on partisan blogs, and under some spectacularly
misleading headlines. So it seems only fair to point out that the
Mail coverage of this report was accurate, and with a
reasonable headline: "'Like finding the Amazon rainforest in the
Mojave Desert': Shock finding of 'massive' algal bloom under the
Arctic ice". Encouraging stuff from the Mail.
While it's probably too much to hope for from lobby groups, we'd
like to see the end of the media exaggerating climate findings for
the sake of a good headline. Overstating climate findings - whether
climate cure or a climate
apocalypse - simply confuses matters. As
we've said before, it's just not helpful.