The Distance In Between Is So Vast: On Phytoplankton, Proximity and The Ecology of Change

Such is the unseen world.

In the beginning, the ammonia saturated orange sky covered the deep green methane sea. Neither could have been beheld by any eyes. Eyes hadn’t been made yet. They could not be noted as good yet. Not even dreamed of. There were no dreamers then. But surely the sky was just that, ammonia saturated, and surely the seas were just that as well, loaded with dissolved methane. This is sky that you know and the seas that you know. Not a far off or imagined planet. This one. And evening and morning, a long first day.

In Act IV, Scene VI of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar persuades the blinded Earl of Gloucester that he is at the edge of a cliff. Gloucester says, “There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confinèd deep: Bring me but to the very brim of it.” Edgar then fools Gloucester into thinking he is at the cliff edge and describes the scene: “Here’s the place! – stand still – how fearful/ And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eye so low … half way down/Hangs one that gathers samphire: dreadful trade!/Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.”

In 1851, English poet Matthew Arnold began his lyric poem by waxing upon the beauty of the Kent coast:

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits:- on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone: the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

If you are an Anglophile then you know whereof I speak. The White Cliffs of Dover and those cliffs are a sign of the unseen made visible and yet still obscured to our eyes.


Those cliffs and many like them all over the world are sign that the atmosphere was once profoundly reshaped by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is an umbrella term for a number of tiny animals that turn sunlight into food via photosynthesis. Unless you’ve put seawater under a microscope or specifically gone looking for them in textbooks or nature documentaries you’ve never seen them. But you have held them if you have ever held a piece of chalk. Chalk is the compressed fossilized shells of trillions of coccolithophores. You have held them if you have ever scattered diatomaceous earth in your garden. Diatomaceous earth is the fossilized shells of diatoms which make their shells out of glass silica. There are also dinoflagelates and others as well.

Coccolithophore. Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of Emiliana. huxleyi. This small algal organism is a calcareous phytoplankton and is surrounded by a skeleton (coccosphere) of calcium carbonate plates (coccoliths). When the organism dies, the plates separate and sink to the ocean floor. Individual plates have been found in vast numbers and can make up the major component of a particular rock, such as the chalk of England. E. huxleyi is found in marine environments world wide. Magnification: x3000 when printed at 10 centimetres wide.

Phytoplankton as a whole give the sea its scent and it is that scent, those tiny molecules that wafts up and becomes the seeds for clouds which reflect sun and, of course, give rain. Phytoplankton is the foundation of the aquatic food web along with seaweed. All of ocean life depends on it. So much depends upon it. But life on the planet depends on them as well. Phytoplankton absorb/consume as much carbon dioxide as all of the world’s forests while making half of the oxygen year in and year out. Millennia in and millennia out. Reliably there. Faithfully there

Surely you’ve heard of a Red Tide. That is an overgrowth of certain kinds of phytoplankton too. 2.5 billion years ago somehow there became an overgrowth of cyanobacteria that had evolved to flourish and feed in the ammonia and methane rich environment. And so this overgrowth spurred what is called “The Great Oxidation Event.” This radically changed the pH of the ocean, it created cycles of movements of minerals in the aquatic food web and the sky became blue, the oceans turned to the wine dark sea, the bruised tinted sea, the sapphired sea.

This new environment, this ecology started to make the conditions for life as we know it to be able to emerge. The shells of quintillions of coccolithophores started to pile on the bottom of the ocean and the pressure made a new material that when lurched up on tectonic plates turned into chalk cliffs like the ones at The White Cliffs of Dover. Those cliffs are the pressurized shells millions and millions of years of dying. All the beauty. All the grandeur. All the pride. Death transmuted.

The clear waters of any chalk stream in Europe or North America are the same. The classroom chalk. The sidewalk chalk in dusty buckets in the hands of children. Those too. Chalk comes from somewhere very old.

Such is the unseen world.

For ocean ecologists who wonder about the marine ecology there is a long standing “problem” in ocean ecology called “The Paradox of the Plankton.” The ecologist George Hutchinson in 1961 articulated the problem, the paradox…there are thousands of species of phytoplankton in the top ten or so meters of the ocean. It is fairly well mixed which means that these phytoplankton are relying on the same food sources in the water and the same sunlight. In theory one or two of these species should be a little more efficient than the others and gain some kind of ecological dominance and out-compete the others. But that hasn’t happened. The phytoplankton types have been incredibly stable for more than half a billion years. Why is it that there are so many varieties then? We don’t find tens of thousands of different kinds of deer or beetle or frog or songbird in the same ecology so why so in the sea on this scale?

There have been many explanations but none have stuck until a recent study done by Oregon State ecological researcher Michael Behrenfield and his colleagues who had the novel notion to conceive of the question from the point of view of the phytoplankton instead of the human one. The land based one.

“Phytoplankton are so small, and the distances between them so vast—from their perspective—that it’s likely phytoplankton aren’t competing at all. If you imagine that a phytoplankton is roughly the size of a tree’s rootball the next nearest phytoplankton would be kilometers away.”

A phytoplankton’s small size also means that it experiences water as a thick substance, perhaps akin to how honey feels to us. When an individual phytoplankton moves, a layer of water called the boundary layer moves with it. This means that phytoplankton spend most of their time firmly separated from each other physically but the environment itself is tempered by the presence of others.

“When you think of it that way, it’s like, well, how can phytoplankton that are that physically distant actually directly compete with each other?” says Behrenfeld.

When Behrenfield gathered this perspective he re-modeled the ecosystem dynamics so that competition wasn’t the fuel so much as genetic mutation, predation patterns, and how asexual reproduction all laced together in a churning ocean. Their models came out with a number of species that aligns with what is found in the actual ocean.

So it seems the paradox isn’t a paradox at all but a profound lack of understanding of a bigger story. The paradox has been nearly given to proof now.

This news enriches my own understanding of what relationality might mean. It might not always mean close proximity but it might mean that the work of a life is done in its own sphere and, collectively, the chemistry of the world is changed. It might mean that. Without lionizing my work with Primal Derma and the culture it seeks to support and speak to…maybe there is a phytoplantonal approach to recall.

This news stands to remind me of the great virtue of leaving, for a time, the human centered perspective and the insight found there by that inversion.

And this news calls and comes to wave up from the deep about how the unseen world makes the world that we know possible. That the animal world sits foundationally in any living world. And that death and endings even in ways that can’t be seen by our eyes might well have a place in feeding life and beauty. The songs, the poems, the art, all of the chalk born beauty comes from there.

What a thing to know about. And there is more to know and still much mystery afoot as well. Glad for such a thing.

Such is the unseen world.


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