Tiny organisms give big warning about planet health

December 8, 2010
A magnification of the cocolithophore, or shell, of microscopic phytoplankton

San Francisco State University scientists are studying whether a hardworking microscopic organism that helps rid the planet of too much carbon dioxide will continue to work so well in the year 2100, when the Earth’s oceans are expected to be more acidic.

At the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (RTC), scientists have created large tanks of specially mixed seawater that simulates the future ocean.

Added to these tanks are microscopic phytoplankton, which play a crucial role in the process that allows the oceans to remove or CO2 from the Earth's atmosphere. The chalky shell that this phytoplankton forms, called a cocolithophore, absorbs CO2 and sinks to the ocean floor, where the gas remains trapped. But growing levels of acid in the ocean, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, are now compromising the quality of the shell and its ability to absorb CO2.

"It's been estimated that this organism is involved in about 85 percent of the transfer of greenhouse gasses to deep water," said Professor of Biology Edward Carpenter. "If it wasn't for like this, we would be cooked."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The research by the RTC team, which also includes Professor of Biology Jonathon Stillman and Professor of Chemistry Tomoko Komada, is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Explore further: Scientists Uncover Link Between Ocean's Chemical Processes and Microscopic Floating Plants

Related Stories

Oceans losing ability to absorb greenhouse gas

January 11, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Like a dirty filter, the Earth's oceans are growing less efficient at absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas produced by fossil-fuel burning, reports a study co-authored by Francois ...

Microbes on the menu

July 28, 2010

The functioning of marine ecosystems depends on the size and flavor of microbes at the base of the food chain. Changes to the Earth's atmosphere might rearrange that microscopic menu. Microbes that currently are the main ...

Recommended for you

Horn of Africa drying ever faster as climate warms

October 9, 2015

The Horn of Africa has become increasingly arid in sync with the global and regional warming of the last century and at a rate unprecedented in the last 2,000 years, according to new research led by a University of Arizona ...

Could 'The Day After Tomorrow' happen?

October 9, 2015

A researcher from the University of Southampton has produced a scientific study of the climate scenario featured in the disaster movie 'The Day After Tomorrow'.

History shows more big wildfires likely as climate warms

October 5, 2015

The history of wildfires over the past 2,000 years in a northern Colorado mountain range indicates that large fires will continue to increase as a result of a warming climate, according to new study led by a University of ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.