Small organisms could dramatically impact world's climate

Oct 25, 2012
Small marine organisms' big changes could affect world climate
This shows plankton (diatoms) among crystals of annual sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Credit: NOAA

(Phys.org)—In the future, warmer waters could significantly change ocean distribution of populations of phytoplankton, tiny organisms that could have a major effect on climate change.

Reporting in this week's online journal Science Express, researchers show that by the end of the 21st century, warmer oceans will cause populations of these marine microorganisms to thrive near the poles and shrink in equatorial waters.

"In the tropical oceans, we are predicting a 40 percent drop in potential diversity, the number of strains of phytoplankton," says Mridul Thomas, a biologist at Michigan State University (MSU) and co-author of the journal paper.

"If the oceans continue to warm as predicted," says Thomas, "there will be a sharp decline in the diversity of phytoplankton in tropical waters and a poleward shift in species' thermal niches—if they don't adapt."

Thomas co-authored the paper with scientists Colin Kremer, Elena Litchman and Christopher Klausmeier, all of MSU.

"The research is an important contribution to predicting plankton productivity and community structure in the oceans of the future," says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research along with NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

"The work addresses how phytoplankton species are affected by a changing environment," says Garrison, "and the really difficult question of whether adaptation to these changes is possible."

The MSU scientists say that since phytoplankton play a key role in regulating levels, and therefore global climate, the shift could in turn cause further .

Small marine organisms' big changes could affect world climate
This shows blooms of phytoplankton off the coast of New Zealand in October, 2009, form sea-swirls. Credit: NASA

Phytoplankton and Earth's climate are inextricably intertwined.

"These results will allow scientists to make predictions about how global warming will shift phytoplankton species distribution and diversity in the oceans," says Alan Tessier, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

Small marine organisms' big changes could affect world climate
This shows phytoplankton in a dark sea; countless numbers drift through the world's oceans. Credit: NOAA

"They illustrate the value of combining ecology and evolution in predicting species' responses."

The microorganisms use light, carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow. Although phytoplankton are small, they flourish in every ocean, consuming about half of the emitted into the atmosphere.

When they die, some sink to the ocean bottom, depositing their carbon in the sediment, where it can be trapped for long periods of time.

Water temperatures strongly influence their growth rates.

Phytoplankton in warmer equatorial waters grow much faster than their cold-water cousins.

With worldwide temperatures predicted to increase over the next century, it's important to gauge the reactions of phytoplankton species, say the scientists.

They were able to show that phytoplankton have adapted to local temperatures.

Based on projections of ocean temperatures in the future, however, many may not adapt quickly enough.

Since they can't regulate their temperatures or migrate, if they don't adapt, they could be hard hit, Kremer says.

"We've shown that a critical group of the world's organisms has evolved to do well under the temperatures to which they're accustomed," he says.

But warming oceans may significantly limit their growth and diversity, with far-reaching implications for the global carbon cycle.

"Future models that incorporate genetic variability within species will allow us to determine whether particular species can adapt," says Klausmeier, "or whether they will face extinction."

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User comments : 11

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ScooterG
1.4 / 5 (13) Oct 25, 2012
"If the oceans continue to warm as predicted,"

The quote above is key to understanding the AGW hoax. Seems most AGW research is based solely on the credibility of prior AGW research, which is questionable at best.

If the original data is flawed, then everything following is flawed.

If the original data came from a biased source, then everything following is also biased.

Enviro-nazis understandably have their feelings hurt when their credibility is questioned. However, they (the enviro-nazi's) made the bed - now they're having trouble sleeping in it.
VendicarD
3 / 5 (6) Oct 25, 2012
If Rush Limbaugh is correct and there is nothing man can do to change the earth, then it is a trillion times more impossible for organisms a trillion times smaller to do so.

So on that basis, all of modern science must be wrong. Especially that insane Einsteinian Relativity that is absolute nonsense that no one can understand. Except of course the self proclaimed Elites who suckle at the teat of big gubderment, and lust after your daughters, while stealing money from your wallet, and driving our biblically based nation into the ground.

Lucifer convinced Eve to eat from the tree of Science, and for that man was cast out of paradise.

Science is the work of the Devil.
packrat
1.5 / 5 (4) Oct 25, 2012
While they might not be able to migrate in the normal fashion all the oceans have currents in them that intermix somewhere along the flows. Would that not continuously cause them to intermix and get the somewhat the same effect? If they need to evolve to be able to handle slightly higher temp waters it seems to me that current movement would give them the chance to 'happen' across plankton that did or does evolve the needed capabilities.
Yes, I'm just guessing but the logic makes sense to me.
JoeBlue
1 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2012
Still waiting for them to prove their original premise with something other than a Computer Simulation.
Frostiken
1.8 / 5 (4) Oct 25, 2012
Well this is hardly anything new. Algae in the oceans is already responsible for the vast majority of CO2 -> O2 conversion. Photosynthesizing microorganisms killed the vast majority of species in the Great Oxygenation Event a couple billion years ago...
Shinobiwan Kenobi
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 26, 2012
Seems most AGW research is based solely on the credibility of prior AGW research, which is questionable at best.

If the original data is flawed, then everything following is flawed.

If the original data came from a biased source, then everything following is also biased.


The quote above is key to understanding that denialists are full of $#!t.
They either fail to comprehend the things they read or they make up/cherry-pick data until it fits with their head-in-the-sand mentality.
rubberman
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 26, 2012
Seems most AGW research is based solely on the credibility of prior AGW research, which is questionable at best.

If the original data is flawed, then everything following is flawed.

If the original data came from a biased source, then everything following is also biased.


The quote above is key to understanding that denialists are full of $#!t.
They either fail to comprehend the things they read or they make up/cherry-pick data until it fits with their head-in-the-sand mentality.


Yup.

"Science is the work of the Devil."

So is foozball!

ScooterG
1.4 / 5 (11) Oct 26, 2012
"Science is the work of the Devil."

Wrong..."rigged" science is the work of the devil.
Howhot
5 / 5 (3) Oct 26, 2012
"Science is the work of the Devil."
"Wrong..."rigged" science is the work of the devil."

Really? AGW (anthropogenic global warming) Rigged? Are you just anti-science or what? Basically, you have not a clue how science even works, except some stupid anti-AGW website. You are the one "rigged"!
jodiesmith
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 27, 2012
I believe it can happen. Nothing is impossible so a single dust can make a difference.
VendicarD
not rated yet Oct 28, 2012
Sorry Jodie. A single dust can't get you pregnant. Neither can a dirty toilet seat.

You will have to find a better excuse.