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Explainer: Panic! At the Plankton

No, plankton have not completely vanished from the earth. But if you we to keep it that way, there are some important things to know.

If you've been on Instagram lately (ha...), you may have noticed a theme we'll call Panic! At the Plankton.

This weekend, a Scottish newspaper reported that 90% of all plankton has vanished from the oceans. By Tuesday morning, social media had gone into a doomscroll overdrive, and soon, friends and family were sharing dire memes about the plankton crisis of 2022.

There's just one thing... It's not actually true.

Here's what is:

Plankton are tiny organisms—algae, plants, and animals—that make up the very base of the marine food chain. Plankton are vital for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, clearing natural waste from our waterways, and serving as food for fish, birds, and even whales. The ocean needs robust plankton levels to thrive, and plankton has depleted due to pollution and climate change.

That said, the study being quoted? It's still a first draft—no other scientists have had a chance to review it or contrast its data with their own. (That's like if Paul Hollywood said a cake was "amazing" on Bake Off before he'd even tasted it. It just doesn't fly.)

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It's also being hotly contested by other professionals, like the scientists at the Marine Biological Association, who have been studying plankton in the world's oceans for 91 years. Their head, Dr. David John, recently told ArsTechnica, "We have noticed long-term changes—northerly movements of plankton species as surface water warms, changes in seasonality in some taxa, invasive [species] etc.," but nothing to indicate plankton are about to destabilize the ocean.

Dr. John notes that there's no indication how they got the plankton in the first place. "If those samples were taken during the day, in surface waters, there is likely lower numbers of zooplankton," he said. There's also the issue of equipment: many microscopes just aren't equipped for zooplankton, which are beyond tiny. And he indicates the scientist behind the studies might himself be a little... uh... shady. ("No one had heard of the guy, except for one person, and she was not complimentary at all.")

So no, 90% of plankton have not suddenly been raptured from the ocean. But if you'd like to keep it that way, there are some things you need to do:

🌱 Commit to reducing your plastic use so waterways aren't flooded with micro-plastics. (Start with your coffee and go from there!)

🌱 Eat organic when possible to ensure ground chemicals don't leach into the water.

🌱 Consider grabbing a few pieces of trash whenever you're at the beach to do your part on behalf of plankton and all marine life.

🌱 If you're able, donate to legitimate science-based organizations (like the Continuous Plankton Recorder)

🌱 Know your sources! Don't repost memes until you read the article, and verify it's coming from a legitimate news site with fact checkers. (Like... yep... Wild Elements.)