Warmer ocean phytoplankton feedback

Phytoplankton bloom off Newfoundland

Phytoplankton bloom off Newfoundland (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

No specifics here, juts a lot of predictive maybes.

Small organisms could dramatically impact world’s climate

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Warmer oceans in the future could significantly alter populations of phytoplankton, tiny organisms that could have a major impact on climate change.

In the current issue of Science Express, Michigan State University 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 may shrink in equatorial waters. Since phytoplankton play a key role in the food chain and the world’s cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and other elements, a drastic drop could have measurable consequences. 

“In the tropical oceans, we are predicting a 40 percent drop in potential diversity,” said Mridul Thomas, MSU graduate student and one of the co-authors. “If the oceans continue to warm as predicted, 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 to climate change.”

Thomas co-authored the study with fellow MSU graduate student Colin Kremer, plant biology, and their faculty mentors Elena Litchman, MSU zoologist, and Christopher Klausmeier, MSU plant biologist. The team, which conducted its research at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station, explained that since phytoplankton play a key role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and thus, global climate, this shift could cause significant change.

The microorganisms use light, carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow. Although phytoplankton are small, they flourish in every ocean, consuming as much carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as all the terrestrial plants combined.

Water temperatures strongly influence their growth rates. In fact, phytoplankton in warmer equatorial waters can grow much faster than their cold-water cousins. With worldwide temperatures predicted to increase over the next century, it’s important to gauge phytoplankton’s reaction and what will happen to the carbon that they currently carry to the ocean floor.

The researchers were able to show that phytoplankton have adapted to local current temperatures. Based on projections of ocean temperatures in the future, however, many phytoplankton may not adapt quickly enough to changes in their current environment. Since phytoplankton can’t regulate their temperatures or migrate, they may suffer significantly limited growth and diversity, Kremer said.

Being able to forecast the impact of these changes will be a useful tool for scientists around the world, said David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences.

“This is an important contribution to predicting plankton productivity and community structure in the oceans of the future,” he said. “The work addresses how phytoplankton species are affected by a changing environment, and the really difficult question of whether evolutionary adaptation to those changes is possible.”

This research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and MSU’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

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44 Responses to Warmer ocean phytoplankton feedback

  1. dcardno says:

    Well, well, well… who would’ve anticipated this: “It’s worse than we thought!”
    First, the cited ‘reduction in diversity’ is a red herring, unless it is accompanied by a reduction in biomass and/or growth rate; it’s only Politically-Correct humans who see ‘diversity’ as an end in its own right. Second, my understanding is that phytoplankton grows in the top layers of the ocean, where annual (and even diurnal) changes in water temperature are much larger than those posited to be driven by ‘global-warming’ – I wonder how the phytoplankton can survive that fluctuation, or the termperature impacts of ENSO, etc?

  2. Katherine says:

    No mention whatsoever of how they conducted this research? Did they just plunk down the phytoplankton in hotter water? I mean, it isn’t as if climate is going to raise temperatures how many degrees in just one day, so how’d they simulate the gradual increase in temperature? Or perhaps it’s just models all the way down?

  3. jbutzi says:

    Looks like a lot of hypothetical speculation….may….may…may…

  4. Bryan says:

    Looks life another example of negative feedback !
    “The microorganisms use light, carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow. Although phytoplankton are small, they flourish in every ocean, consuming as much carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as all the terrestrial plans combined.”

    Light energy removed and stored.
    Carbon Dioxide removed

    Whats not to like !

  5. Alec Rawls says:

    Except the oceans are not going to warm. They are going to cool, causing increased ocean productivity (the one benefit to the biosphere of global cooling).

  6. Leo Morgan says:

    But we’re told the models predict the poles will warm much more than the equator.
    Global thermal enrichment, and enhanced CO2 will therefore result in vast increases in phytoplankton, and accordingly much greater carbon capture.
    This is one of the negative feedbacks that leave me unimpressed with the claims of thermageddon.

  7. fhhaynie says:

    They are asking for funding for long term job security based on what we don’t know.

  8. Gene Selkov says:

    “… many phytoplankton may not adapt quickly enough to changes in their current environment.”

    Are they talking about elephants? With generation times ranging from a few days to a few hours, they will adapt to anything. They will go anaerobic again if they have to.

    http://www.marine.csiro.au/microalgae/methods/Growth%20rate.htm

    (note the paragraph under “Declining growth”)

  9. izen says:

    It was already known that phytoplankton numbers have dropped by 40% between 1950 and 2010.
    It is supected that this decline which is directly attributable to warming oceans may be a significant factor in the drastic decline in large fish seen over the last few decades as catches plummet. Overfishing may not be the only reason fish like cod have vanished from the Grand banks.

    This is an example of the effect of AGW impacting on human food sources already because of the existing warming of the oceans. No mistake about ocean warming, there are no UHI to distort the readings out there. Decreasing ph just makes things worse as many phytoplankton use forms of calcite as ridgid skeletons which become increasingly energy intensive to form as the waters warm and become less basic.

  10. DesertYote says:

    Number of species == Number of Organisms ??? FAIL! More brainwashed children pretending to be scientists writing papers to support an agenda that they don’t understand. Notice how a majority of these propaganda sold as science pieces are authored by students?

  11. richardscourtney says:

    izen:

    At October 30, 2012 at 8:55 am you say

    It was already known that phytoplankton numbers have dropped by 40% between 1950 and 2010.

    40%? That is “known”? Really? How?

    Richard

  12. izen says:

    @- Alec Rawls
    “Except the oceans are not going to warm. They are going to cool”

    It is an interesting assertion… but do you have any credible evidence to support it ?

    the most recent figures for ocean heat content show it continuing to accumulate energy. There are not any imminent reductions in solar output or albedo that would be of sufficient magnitude to offset the additional W/m2 from the rising CO2 so I wonder what physical process you envisage causing the cooling ?

  13. Crispin in Battambang says:

    @Izen

    Do you have even the slightest data to back your outrageous claim that the absence of phytoplankton contributed to the decline of the cod population? I will give you the benefit of doubt with a window of opportunity to overturn the prevailing consensus that it was overfishing with the use of sonar.

    If you are correct, how do you explain the unexpectedly rapid recovery of the cod population when fishing them was banned?

    My hand hovers over the BS button.

  14. daveburton says:

    izen wrote, “phytoplankton numbers have dropped by 40% between 1950 and 2010.”

    Izen, that’s debunked nonsense. See:
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/04/25/the-ocean-wins-again/

  15. MarkW says:

    May, might, could.
    Definitely another global warming study.

  16. izen says:

    @- richardscourtney says:
    “40%? That is “known”? Really? How?”

    By observation using a Secchi disk.

  17. MarkW says:

    izen says:
    October 30, 2012 at 8:55 am
    —-
    Small problem, the oceans aren’t warming.
    PS: Where’s your evidence of a decline in phytoplankton?

  18. P. Solar says:

    “If the oceans continue to warm as predicted…..”

    OK , I’ve read enough of this bullshit science. They don’t say predicted by who, on what basis, they just take it as given.

    Errors were reasonably made in the 1990′s but continuing to spew out this garbage as if predictions of broken climate models still has any relevance to science is intellectually dishonest.

    ENOUGH .

  19. richardscourtney says:

    izen:

    re your reply to me at October 30, 2012 at 9:25 am

    You say you determined phytoplankton decline “By observation using a Secchi disk”.

    I fail to understand how the stated device could conduct the required measurements.

    Please explain your method and your sampling over the entire oceans of the world and the sampling times over the period since 1940.

    Frankly, I consider your claims to have no more validity than your usual comments on WUWT.

    Richard

  20. Gene Selkov says:

    Izen, please do us a favour.

    Take one litre of seawater, sterilise it and sparge it with air balanced to 10,000 ppm CO2. Do it as long as you please (I predict you’ll need a couple hours to achieve equilibrium). Tell us how far your pH will go.

  21. This is simply press release baffle gab. The whole thing is little more then speculation based on a bunch of assumptions that are only loosely related to real biological and temperature interactive systems.

  22. jim2 says:

    Some of these phytoplankton complete their life cycle in one week. I would think that, even with genetic plasiticity aside, their gene pool would be capable of rapid shifts – just like fruit flys.

  23. Logan in AZ says:

    The phytoplankton dimethylsulfate negative feedback mechanism does not get much attention here, and is of course ignored by the warmists. The Idso group at co2science has a page that summarizes the DMS effect and shows that it could offset most or all of the postulated human effect. See:

    http://www.co2science.org/subject/d/summaries/dms.php

    The concluding paragraph from the Idso summary reads:

    “In conclusion, it is unfortunate that in light of the overwhelming empirical evidence for both land- and ocean-based DMS-driven negative feedbacks to global warming, the effects of these processes are only now beginning to be incorporated into today’s state-of-the-art climate models. And when such effects are properly considered, it may be that these biologically-driven phenomena may prove to totally compensate for the warming influence of all greenhouse gas emissions experienced to date, as well as all those that are anticipated to occur in the future.”

    This factor deserves much greater emphasis, and should be included in any general public presentation. Biology rules!

  24. DesertYote says:

    izen says:
    October 30, 2012 at 8:55 am

    It was already known that phytoplankton numbers have dropped by 40% between 1950 and 2010.
    ###

    BZZT! Wrong answer…

  25. michael hart says:

    It isn’t even a drop in diversity, but “potential diversity.”

    That’s true, as far as it goes, only because they simply don’t know what the diversity is. In terms of complexity, understanding the ‘ocean-genome’ is indeed ‘worse than they thought’. To paraphrase Beavis and Butthead: “Errrrrrrr………This is hard.”

  26. Bruce Cobb says:

    izen says:
    October 30, 2012 at 8:55 am

    This is an example of the effect of AGW impacting on human food sources already because of the existing warming of the oceans. No mistake about ocean warming, there are no UHI to distort the readings out there.
    First, congrats on recognizing how UHI has skewed the reported land warming upwards, meaning the actual warming that has occurred is far less. Not many fuzzy-brained Warmists get that, so, kudos. Unfortunately, you go off the deep end again with your wild and unsupported claims of AGW somehow warming the oceans, killing plankton, and depleting fish populations. Take a look:

    http://c3headlines.typepad.com/.a/6a010536b58035970c01676766904b970b-popup

    As with land warming, the correlation between increasing C02 and ocean warming is a tenuous one at best. But you Warmists have the old Peter Pan syndrome: it’s there if only you Believe hard enough.

  27. fhhaynie says:

    Richard,
    I questioned that 40% global decline and Googled “global phytoplankton decline” and found were it came from. The study used turbity measurements as a proxie and modeled those measurements globally and came up with an approximate one percent decline per year over the period covered by the measurements. The 40% was what they figured to be the decline since about 1950. They say the figures are statistically significant but do not give any probability figures or confidence limits. Their plot of where the measurements were taken and the magnitude of calculated increases and declines shows that there were no measurements in the Arctic Ocean and very few measurements in the mid latitudes of the southern oceans. I question both their construction of a global model and their statistical methods of analyzing the resulting “data”. This appears to me to be just another subjective study to provide evidence that CAGW is a real problem.

  28. Bloke down the pub says:

    Since phytoplankton can’t regulate their temperatures or migrate, they may suffer significantly limited growth and diversity, Kremer said.
    How dumb can these people really be? As free floating organisms at the mercy of the currents, the individuals are migrating all the time except that if they move to a region that is currently too cold they will die off. If the seas poleward of their present habitat warm, then when they’re swept there, they stand a better chance of surviving.

  29. Gene Selkov says:

    @Bloke down the pub:

    Additionally, many members of phytoplankton communities (maybe all; I just know about cyanobacteria) migrate vertically, and not necessarily with currents. They can descend and ascend at will. Many dwell where no Secchi disk can reach them. So not only the argument about the stratification of nutrients is moot; it also largely invalidates surface turbidity as a proxy (I wouldn’t mind as much if they did a 3D turbidity study, but I am not aware of any).

  30. Bloke down the pub says:
    October 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Since phytoplankton can’t regulate their temperatures or migrate, they may suffer significantly limited growth and diversity, Kremer said.

    How dumb can these people really be? As free floating organisms at the mercy of the currents, the individuals are migrating all the time except that if they move to a region that is currently too cold they will die off. If the seas poleward of their present habitat warm, then when they’re swept there, they stand a better chance of surviving.

    Since the reviewers didn’t pick this up, or the editor, the dumbness, or worse, is institutionalized. And the arrogance–they know the people who matter in their little world won’t call them on it either, and skeptics have been safely marginalized from having an influence. So far.

  31. george e smith says:

    In about 6 minutes it will be 2pm and everybody in the USA can go and get a free Fritos Locos Tacos, at Taco Belle, courtesy of the San Francisco World Champion Giants stolen base; well Actually the North America, not counting Canada and Mexico Champions.

    There’s a suggestion that this could, and actually might affect world climate, and moreover do so in entirely unpredictable ways.

    So If you see some unpredctable change in the weather/climate happen remember your learned about it first at WUWT !

  32. Mike Jonas says:

    Bloke down the pub – You beat me to it on the migrating nonsense. I particularly liked their statement “many phytoplankton may not adapt quickly enough to changes in their current environment”.

    Unfortunately, Roger Knights is correct in his assessment that the dumbness is institutionalised and sceptics have been safely marginalised. It is still going to be an enormous uphill battle.

  33. richardscourtney says:

    fhhaynie:

    Thankyou for your post at October 30, 2012 at 11:12 am which answers my question.

    As I thought, the 40% is not justified and it is hard to imagine how it could be. Thankyou.

    Richard

  34. Jimbo says:

    Leo Morgan says:
    October 30, 2012 at 8:41 am

    But we’re told the models predict the poles will warm much more than the equator.
    Global thermal enrichment, and enhanced CO2 will therefore result in vast increases in phytoplankton, and accordingly much greater carbon capture.

    Shhhhhh. Don’t let the cat out of the bag. :)

  35. Matt says:

    Any news on the 100t iron oxide (?) dumping action having any effect? What’s the projected time frame on that, anyway?

  36. fhhaynie says:
    October 30, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Richard,
    I questioned that 40% global decline and Googled “global phytoplankton decline” and found were it came from. The study used turbity measurements as a proxie . . . .

    Since there are many more dams worldwide now than then, much of the silt that used to flow downstream settles out behind the dams. In addition, farmers now practice erosion control plowing more widely, which also reduces silt runoff. Finally, perhaps fertilizers and other runoffs have properties that are encouraging silt particles to clump, which would speed their sinking and clarify the water.

    izen says:
    October 30, 2012 at 9:22 am.

    There are not any imminent reductions in solar output or albedo that would be of sufficient magnitude to offset the additional W/m2 from the rising CO2 so I wonder what physical process you envisage causing the cooling ?

    ENSO is constantly bringing up lower-lying layers of the ocean to the surface, where it strongly affects the temperature of the atmosphere. It could be that the next layers it brings up will be cooler than the ones it’s been bringing up since the LIA.

  37. Henry Clark says:

    The 40% phytoplankton decline claim is just exceptionally blatant dishonesty and evidence that dumb people in the media will believe almost anything if given a window dressing of superficially formal publication. Fish populations which feed on phytoplankton did nothing of the sort ( http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y2787e/y2787e00.htm etc). Someone about might as well claim that 99% of plants died last month and magically nobody noticed. More honest actual measurements of phytoplankton (like http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2005/2005GL022484.shtml and http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2005/2004JC002620.shtml and others) tend to find increase over recent decades. Like other photosynthetic life, phytoplankton did well during past climates when temperatures were warmer than now and during past climates when the availability of their prime food source (CO2) was higher.

  38. James says:

    Wow looks like a lot of furphies being put out there on phytoplankton numbers.

    Phytoplankton numbers in the southern oceans actually increased up till the 1980′s due in part to the over fishing of baleen whales.

    It’s also likely that changes in the Earths Magnetic field affect the distribution of iron based compounds that these plants use as nutrients thus affecting their growth and distribution.

    So here’s the thing- the Ecosystem is a system it’s not a single process, there’s a huge number of variables that are not considered by these sorts of blinkered, temperature focused, politically driven, papers, and invariably they will be proved to not cover enough of the other real causes of what they claim to observe.

    I don’t suppose a climatologist has ever seen a whale or a compass.

  39. Phytoplankton is at the bottom of a fairly long food chain. They are vital to ocean health and any fiddling with numbers would be criminally insane.

  40. phlogiston says:

    More dancing around the may-pole. Another thinly veiled political tract dressed up as third-rate science.

    “In the tropical oceans, we are predicting a 40 percent drop in potential diversity,” said Mridul Thomas

    What the hell is “potential diversity”?? Is it the capacity of a system to generate new species? Is it a heterogeneity in electrical potential? Or is it some-one so psyched-up politically that they cant be bothered to write English properly, just randomly chucking in the word “potential” anywhere in the sentence to give a hypothetical mood?

    This is a cheap attempt to predict ocean biosphere catastrophe based on a fictitious temperature increase in future. It is utter crap. It was obviously thought up by a politician, not a biological oceanographer. Primary production is constrained first and foremost by nutrient supply. Temperature is a relatively minor factor. (Just as CO2 is dwarfed by several much larger factors in setting global temperatures). Think about this – why is the sea in the tropics often blue, while in temperate latitudes more often green? Answer – tropical seas, being hotter, have stronger thermal stratification so nutrient recycling from below is weaker. Blue means no algae. Hot temperatures are of no value where there is no nutrient. Likewise waters in temperate and even polar regions are green and teem with rich phytoplankton production due to strong vertical mixing bringing up nutrients from below. Even near freezing temperatures do little to offset this production. The limiting factor is nutrient, not temperature.

    So the only oceanographic factor which will affect primary production is the magnitude and distribution of upwelling, bringing nutrients from deep water (generated by microbial recycling of sinking biological detritus) up to the surface.

    And, it turns out, ocean currents and upwelling are also probably the strongest factor determining global climate and temperatures also.

  41. Salva says:

    Interestingly, the appearance of phytoplankton, which can live in a high temperature range which automatically implies an increase of dissolved oxygen in water and implicitly a decrease in temperature of that short-term sea.

  42. Mike Bromley the Canucklehead says:

    “we are predicting a 40 percent drop in potential diversity” How do you predict a drop in potential? That must take some doing.

    izen says:
    October 30, 2012 at 8:55 am

    “Decreasing ph [sic] just makes things worse as many phytoplankton use forms of calcite as ridgid skeletons which become increasingly energy intensive to form as the waters warm and become less basic.”

    Izen, you need to do some research instead of inventing some hypothesis to assert like a bombastic fool. Forms of calcite? Interesting. Care to elaborate? Ever hear of aragonite? Didn’t think so. Nice try with the waters becoming “less basic”, though. While technically correct (as opposed to ocean ‘acidification’), The ocean is a long way from being unable to provide the many forms of calcite that come with your hypothesis. (/sarc, just in case).

    I don’t get why you would come to WUWT and try to blow smoke up our patoots, could it be that maybe you get ignored at SkS?

  43. phlogiston says:

    Calcified marine organisms have been a significant part of earth’s biota since the Cambrian explosion, 560 million years ago. And in fact further back as well, since the “small shelly fauna” existed hundreds of millions of years before that, perhaps the best documented per-Cambrian multi-cellular life. Bacterial stromatolites, with us for more than half of the earths lifespan, also left calcified deposits. All this took place in the presence of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere of up to 10,000 ppm, if we take the last billion years, and much higher if we go back further. We see calcified living organisms happily living and evolving throughout all this time. Were they fizzing like Alka-Seltzer tablets the moment they appeared in an acid ocean – no. They were living normally in an ocean about the same pH as today (at least post-oxygenation event).

    In this context, the bold-faced suggestion that an increase in atmospheric CO2 by a few hundred ppm will “acidify the oceans” and damage calcified marine life, borders on criminal fraud. It makes no scientific sense whatsoever.

  44. gymnosperm says:

    The researchers were able to show that phytoplankton have adapted to local current temperatures

    ==================================================================

    N.S. Sherlock. Their ancestors have been around for 1.5 billion years and the modern clades have been around since the dinosaurs. And you are seriously worried about them adapting to slightly warmer ocean temperatures during a snowcone earth?

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