There are possibly 2 million unique species of water-dwelling diatoms, one of the most critical groups of living creatures on Earth. Some scientists estimate these single-cell organisms produce up to one-quarter of the planet’s oxygen, playing a central role in making our world inhabitable for large, complex mammals like us.
Diatoms are tiny – some are so small that as many as 30 of them can fit across the width of a human hair – so you’ll need a microscope to glimpse nature’s architectural majesty. Their jewel-like shells are formed by a substance known generally as silica, similar to what creates quartz, sand and glass. These shells are so heavy that they sink to the ocean floor after the organism dies, taking the carbon out of the surface waters and locking it in as sandy sediment. These creatures are massively important in the global carbon cycle, so some scientists are beginning to pay them more attention.
They have been found to be key in stabilizing our atmosphere, especially as it concerns removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. During photosynthesis, diatoms turn CO2 into organic carbon and produce oxygen in the process. As modern science gives way to a political era of “alternative facts” and industry-sponsored scientific relativism, especially on climate change, it seems this piece from National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase is all the more relevant.
The art form of arranging diatoms dates all the way back to the Victorians, when these natural splendors were arranged under the lens of some of the earliest microscopes. Almost lost in time, this technique of natural discovery and precise arrangement has been revived by modern microscopist Klaus Kemp.
When speaking on his original diatom inspiration at the age of 16, Kemp says, “I just could not get over how nature could produce something that beautiful. Most of the world never sees that beauty.” His creations echo the aesthetics of stained glass residing in Europe’s most ornate cathedrals. Watch the video below and enjoy a trip through the curious mind of Klaus Kemp, The Diatomist.
+ Directed & filmed by Matthew Killip