Warmer seas will wipe out plankton, source of ocean life

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The microscopic plants that underpin all life in the oceans are likely to be destroyed by global warming, a study has found.

Scientists have discovered a way that the vital plankton of the oceans can be starved of nutrients as a result of the seas getting warmer. They believe the findings have catastrophic implications for the entire marine habitat, which ultimately relies on plankton at the base of the food chain.

The study is also potentially devastating because it has thrown up a new "positive feedback" mechanism that could result in more carbon dioxide ending up in the atmosphere to cause a runaway greenhouse effect.

Scientists led by Jef Huisman of the University of Amsterdam have calculated that global warming, which is causing the temperature of the sea surface to rise, will also interfere with the vital upward movement of nutrients from the deep sea.

These nutrients, containing nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, are vital food for phytoplankton. If the supply is interrupted the plants die off, which prevents them from absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

"Global warming of the surface layers of the oceans reduces the upward transport of nutrients into the surface layers. This generates chaos among the plankton," the professor said.

The sea is one of nature's "carbon sinks", which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposits the carbon in a long-term store - dissolved in the ocean or deposited as organic waste on the seabed. The vast quantities of phytoplankton in the oceans absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide. When the organisms die they fall to the seabed, carrying their store of carbon with them, where it stays for many thousands of years - thereby helping to counter global warming.

"Plankton... forms the basis of the marine food web. Moreover, phytoplankton consumes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide during photosynthesis," Professor Huisman said. "Uptake of carbon dioxide by phytoplankton across the vast expanses of the oceans reduces the rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere."

Warmer surface water caused by global warming causes greater temperature stratification, with warm surface layers sitting on deeper, colder layers, to prevent mixing of nutrients.

Professor Huisman shows in a study published in Nature that warmer sea surfaces will deliver a potentially devastating blow to the supply of deep-sea nutrients for phytoplankton.

His computer model of the impact was tested on real measurements made in the Pacific Ocean, where sea surface temperatures tend to be higher than in other parts of the world. He found that his computer predictions of how nutrient movement would be interrupted were accurate.

"A larger temperature difference between two water layers implies less mixing of chemicals between these water layers," he said. "Global warming of the surface layers of the oceans, owing to climate change, strengthens the stratification and thereby reduces the upward mixing of nutrients."

Scientists had believed phytoplankton, which survives best at depths of about 100 metres, is largely stable and immune from the impact of global warming. "This model prediction was rather unexpected," Professor Huisman said.

"Reduced stability of the plankton, caused by global warming of the oceans, may result in a decline of oceanic production and reduced sequestration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the oceans."

Vital link in the food chain

Microscopic plankton comes in animal and plant forms. The plants are known as phytoplankton. They lie at the base of the marine food chain because they convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into organic carbon - food for everything else.

Smaller animals such as shrimp-like krill feed on plankton and are themselves eaten by larger organisms, from small fish to the biggest whales. Without phytoplankton, the oceans would soon because marine deserts. Phytoplankton are also important because of the role they play in the carbon cycle, which determines how much carbon dioxide - the most important greenhouse gas - ends up in the atmosphere to cause global warming. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which dissolves in the oceans, are absorbed by phytoplankton and converted to organic carbon. When the phytoplankton die, their shells and bodies sink to the seabed, carrying this carbon with them.

Phytoplankton therefore acts as a carbon "sink" which takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposits the carbon in long-term stores that can remain undisturbed for thousands of years. If the growth of phytoplankton is interrupted by global warming, this ability to act as a buffer against global warming is also affected - leading to a much-feared positive feedback.

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