By Stephen Leahy
[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]
The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)
“Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said
Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.
“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.
“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.
“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.
[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]
Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.
Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans.
Phytoplankton or plankton are very small algae that live near the surface of oceans and form the basis of the marine food web. The unheralded plankton tribe may be the hardest- working group of organisms on the planet. Not only do they feed nearly everything living in the oceans, they absorb and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, they also play a key role in cloud formation.
Plankton give off dimethyl sulfide, a chemical which floats to the ocean’s surface, evaporates, breaking down into sulfur compounds that become the nuclei around which clouds form.
Without plankton, the Earth would be a very different planet.
The researchers spent three years analysing and synthesising an unprecedented collection of historical and recent oceanographic data involving nearly half a million measurements of the transparency of sea water over the past 120 years. Previously, the “big picture” regarding plankton globally only went as far back as 1997 with the launch of special satellites.
Worm, Lewis and colleague Daniel Boyce found that most phytoplankton declines occurred in polar and tropical regions, and in the open oceans where most phytoplankton production occurs. There was a direct correlation between rising sea surface temperatures and the decline in phytoplankton growth over most of the globe, especially close to the equator, they determined.
“With ocean temperatures increasing we had been wondering what the impacts might be,” Worm told IPS in an interview in Potsdam, Germany.
In addition to the declines in plankton, declines in the numbers of species in tropical waters and increases in the number of species in temperate waters have been observed, he said. As on land, some marine species are exquisitely sensitive to temperature and will move if a region becomes too warm.
Another related mega-change in the oceans is the dramatic increase in number and size of dead zones – areas too low in oxygen to support life. Fertiliser and sewage run-off cause huge growth of plankton, which then quickly die and are consumed by bacteria that deplete waters of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico has a 22,000 square kilometre dead zone every spring due to run-off from the Mississippi River.
Ocean stratification, where warm water sits firmly on top of cold, nutrient-rich water, also creates dead zones and lowers the overall productivity of the oceans, says Worm. Such dead zones were rare 40 years ago but now number several hundred. Without urgent action, climate change will continue to warm oceans, increasing stratification and producing larger and more dead zones with a major impact on future fisheries, a 2009 study in Nature Geoscience warned.
It will take a thousand years for the oceans to cool down, so it is imperative to pull the emergency brake on global warming emissions, the study concluded.
Another pressing reason to pull the emergency brake is the increasing acidification of oceans due to human emissions of CO2. Each day, the oceans absorb 30 million tonnes of CO2, gradually and inevitably increasing their acidity, which in turn reduces the amounts of calcium carbonate available to some plankton and other species that need it to form their shells and skeletons.
There is no controversy about this basic chemistry. The only debate is about the extent and timing of the impacts. Recent research in the Arctic previously reported by IPS suggests that within 10 years, parts of the Arctic Ocean will be too acidic for most species.
The only way to reduce ocean acidification is with substantial cuts in emissions of CO2, say experts like Australia’s Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.
Hoegh-Guldberg co-authored a review of dozens of studies on the state of the oceans in Science magazine Jun. 18. It paints a terrifying picture of the global oceans rapidly sliding towards a “fundamental and irreversible ecological transformation” not seen in millions of years.
“We need to cut global emissions by five percent per annum starting right now,” he writes along with co-author John Bruno, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina.
Inaction is not an option given the huge consequences, but fortunately we already know what to do, they say. National support for creating competitive renewable energy supplies and halting deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia would result in major reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Protecting and restoring coastal vegetation, including mangroves, salt marsh and sea grasses – dubbed “blue carbon” – would maintain or increase the ability of marine ecosystems to capture and permanently store carbon dioxide.
“Furthermore, all of these solutions have huge benefits for people and biodiversity,” they conclude.