A nice paper on Whaling and Carbon cycles in the Ocean

2010 December 13
by Daniel Lakeland

PLoS ONE: The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better (Pershing et al. 2010) Yay open access journal!

This was my favorite paper that I came across while looking for papers that had been significantly influenced by (Moore et al. 2004) as part of the final assignment in my Oceanography class.

The influence was relatively hard to argue so I moved on and used something else for the assignment, but the Pershing paper on Whaling is an example of the kind of thing I'd like to see more of. The Moore paper was a "big model" type paper, coupling dynamic ocean circulation with iron distribution, and ecological competition in the upper ocean. Essentially it's a thousands of degrees of freedom dynamical system which might maybe tell us something about the way that carbon and iron and nutrients are used in the global ocean, but it might have a lot of errors in design of each sub-model, and in fact the paper I eventually used argued from actual data that iron from the continental margins could travel much farther than Moore et al. had calculated. Big models tell us in detail information about something but it's not necessarily true that they tell us anything about reality.

The Pershing paper on the other hand uses a few pages of simple mathematical modeling to argue that inevitably culling ecosystems from the top down makes for a system that recycles carbon much more quickly. By restoring whale populations to their pre-whaling status we would sequester as much carbon as the best estimates from experiments on iron fertilization of the ocean and in a much more ecologically sound way.

Certainly Pershing et al. make estimating errors as well (everyone makes estimation errors), but their errors are not propagated through a massive inscrutable multi-degree of freedom chaotic dynamical system, and are therefore much more scrutable.  Furthermore they make some effort to bound these errors and examine whether they make any difference to the qualitative result. In the end, by realizing the importance of basic scaling laws, they choose to consider an area of study completely neglected by the bulk of Oceanographic carbon cycle research they come to a seemingly robust conclusion that would seem to overturn the entire concept of iron fertilization as a competing method of Geoengineering.

One Response leave one →
  1. ewa permalink
    January 26, 2011

    I found this post by accident and can't comment on the results of the paper, but I'm in 100% accord with your sense of aesthetics.


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