Climate change could mean blue oceans as heat kills phytoplankton

Climate change could mean blue oceans as heat kills phytoplankton

At the heart of the phenomenon lie tiny marine microorganisms called phytoplankton, which are crucial to ocean food webs and to the global cycling of carbon - and sensitive to the temperature of ocean waters.

In the interim, Dutkiewicz said, paying close attention to changes in the oceans' colour can offer the first clues of the changes that are underway.

Another difference from previous studies is that this time, the researchers are looking exclusively at satellite measurements of reflected light from the phytoplankton. They are also key to other animals' survival. Phytoplankton produce chlorophyll, which absorbs much of the spectrum but reflects green light.

The presence of phytoplankton in waters typically indicates the health of water: When there is just enough of it, life thrives and the water takes on the "healthy" green colour.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Hickman and colleagues from the United Kingdom and U.S. report how they came to their conclusions by using a computer model that predicts how factors such as temperature, ocean currents and ocean acidity affects the growth and types of phytoplankton in the water, as well as levels of other coloured organic matter and detritus. They pull carbon into the ocean while giving off oxygen.

"Other things will absorb or scatter it, like something with a hard shell".

But it isn't just global warming that causes a change in algal blooms and chlorophyll; naturally occurring weather events like El Nino could also temporarily cause a spike in phytoplankton bloom, causing an increase in chlorophyll.

The ocean looks blue or green to us because of a combination of how sunlight interacts with water molecules and with whatever else lives in that water. "So it's a complicated process, how light is reflected back out of the ocean to give it its colour". The resulting model can be fed with various values of inputs, primarily global temperatures.

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For Mr. Strutton, "What this study has shown is that although the greenness of the oceans, the amount of chlorophyll might only be changing by small amounts, what's important is that the type of phytoplankton might be changing more dramatically".

They believe it will be 30-40 years before they can say for certain that climate change is having an impact on chlorophyll.

Scientists already know that climate change is affecting plankton, with warmer waters leading to different algae species blooming in new waters, for instance. "But you can see a significant, climate-related shift in some of these wavebands, in the signal being sent out to the satellites".

One way to monitor changes on a global scale is through observing the color of the ocean satellite data.

The simulations, which take about three weeks to run on a large array of computers, revealed we can expect our oceans to look a little different in the future, though it depends on where you go. The projected change by the team shows a deepening of blue in the tropical regions and green in the poles, as the regions around the equator become too hot, making the poles warmer. Now researchers find climate change will alter the color of the oceans by the end of the 21century.

"There will be a noticeable difference in the color of 50 percent of the ocean by the end of the 21st century", said lead author Stephanie Dutkiewicz in a statement.

"It could be potentially quite serious", Dutkiewicz added of the change in color in the oceans. Since much of the ocean's color comes from phytoplankton, Dutkiewicz and her team suspected that if these communities change, then the color of the ocean is likely to vary along with them.

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