Ocean: the real lungs of the planet
Do you want to turn blue and purple from the lack of oxygen in the air? When people refer to the “lungs of the Earth”, they often think of the Amazon rainforest. This label for the Amazon became mainstream after major news outlets covered the massive forest fires of 2019 and 2020.
There’s been a common misconception for decades that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the Earth’s oxygen, which has more recently been established in the scientific community as a myth. It’s believed that this myth was twisted through a telephone effect, considering it is actually true that about 20% of the world’s global oxygen produced via photosynthesis on land is from the Amazon.
The actual figure of Amazon’s global oxygen production is at most, 10% of the world’s oxygen. Not only that, but of the oxygen produced, trees and wildlife also consume a significant amount of the oxygen produced through a process called cellular respiration, so of the potential 10% global figure, it’s likely a much more insignificant percentage that actually reaches the atmosphere.
The same goes for the net output of oxygen from just about any forest or biome–all being about net zero, after factoring in oxygen consumption. This being said, the Amazon rainforest is still home to an abundance of wildlife, consumes a significant amount of carbon in the air, as well as stabilizing the region’s climate and weather patterns, so it’s still worthy of being protected.
As a matter of fact, although ironic, the title of “Lungs of the Earth” rightfully belongs to the ocean. Of the oxygen in our atmosphere, scientists estimate between 50%-80% of which came from marine life in the ocean.
Out of this massive percentage, we ought to thank oceanic plankton (e.g. algae like seaweed and kelp, phytoplankton, and other bacteria) for photosynthesizing and producing so much oxygen. Some scientists even state that one in every five breaths we take owe tribute to the oxygen from microscopic algae. Of the many microscopic species, the smallest of which, Prochlorococcus, actually produces an astounding 20% of all oxygen in our atmosphere—which is the figure people incorrectly perceived the entire Amazon rainforest produces—when in reality it’s from microscopic ocean drifters! That being said, there are many different species of plankton, some microscopic, others roughly an inch in size, and other algae like seaweed could grow to be dozens of meters long.
Now knowing that we ought to be much more thankful for the contribution the ocean makes to our breathing air, the next step is understanding that the ocean’s health is in danger. As humanity pollutes the Earth, and especially the ocean, natural disasters of all sorts increase in frequency.
One natural phenomenon in particular that has been a target of our institutional and individual pollution, are algae blooms. Algae blooms occur naturally, as they’re the way algae reproduce and grow across bodies of water, but heavily due to sewage pollution and agricultural runoff, these forms of pollution become food sources for algae. As a result, algae blooms have increased in frequency and at times, are astronomically larger in ocean coverage.
The unhealthy frequency and size of algae blooms result in the blockage of light for billions of other organisms in the photic zone in the ocean (the top 200 meters of the ocean where light shines through for photosynthesizing organisms). Such blockage of light leads to the death of phytoplankton, lessening oxygen production via photosynthesis, in addition to the fact that as dead organisms decay and sink to the bottom of the ocean, their remains release particles which block oxygen from leaving the surface of the water. Furthermore, not only do obnoxious algae blooms inhibit the lives of deeper-level phytoplankton, but a small percentage of algae blooms include harmful algae blooms (HAB), which means some of the algae actually release toxins that can harm or kill animals higher up in the food chain such as penguins, seals, whales, and even humans. Contaminated seafood ingested by humans can lead to food poisoning or other illnesses, making HAB’s a public health concern.
Moving forward with an ocean-conscious mindset, there are numerous actionable steps individuals can take that will lead to further awareness and a positive impact on marine life. To name a few, three steps include shopping organically, looking for plant-based or sustainable food alternatives, and finding ways to emit less carbon dioxide.
1. Shopping organically is a simple way to support local farmers who use less pesticides and fertilizers on their crops. As a result, when it rains, organic crops don’t have nearly as much runoff, which avoids the problem of nonpoint source pollution and overstimulating marine ecosystems.
2. While shopping organically, another great step towards sustainable living is to shop for plant-based or sustainably-farmed alternatives. Especially when it comes to seafood, there are plenty of brands that offer Beyond Meat alternatives which lead to less seafood farming, interfering less with the natural order of ecosystems. For individuals who can’t give up salmon for example, there are also many seafood brands that have the MSC Blue Fish Label, which means the brand is certified to farm sustainably, minimizing negative impacts on local marine life.
3. Lastly, by finding ways to emit less Co2, such as using public transportation more often, choosing to bike, or carpool, among many other approaches, the air eventually will become slightly cleaner. While oceans produce a majority of the oxygen in the atmosphere, they also absorb a significant percentage of the Co2 in the air. However, as societies across the globe become more developed, there’s an imbalance with how much Co2 we produce and how much the ocean can absorb.
Hence making mindful, conscious choices - even if they seem small - are key to create societal changes we must make to protect not only the oceans but our very own existence as everything is interlinked in an intrinsic, delicate balance.
We are the stewards of this beautiful planet and must protect it, at all costs!
written by Ryan O’Sullivan