Study shows how climate change has affected plankton populations

Plankton are tiny creatures that play key roles in the foundation of the ocean’s food chain and even the planet’s carbon cycle. However, climate change puts these organisms at risk. A study by ETH Zurich examined how rising sea temperatures affect the distribution of the populations of these organisms – and how this affects marine ecosystems.

Plankton are microorganisms that cannot move against ocean competitors and are the most abundant life form on the planet after bacteria. The most common are phytoplankton and zooplankton, both of which play fundamental roles in the food chain, the carbon cycle, and the production of oxygen into the atmosphere. For the first time, researchers have estimated how these species can adapt to rising global temperatures.

Phytoplankton population thriving in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway and Russia (Image: Reproduction / NASA)

The research, conducted by environmental physicist Fabio Benedetti, lead author of the study, developed map models of the global distribution of more than 860 phytoplankton and zooplankton species. Benedetti and colleagues then used statistical algorithms and climate models to determine how these populations would suffer from future climate change.

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Initial results showed an increase in both groups, but when mean sea surface temperature exceeded 25 ° C, zooplankton populations in the tropics declined, suggesting migration of these organisms to the cooler waters of the poles. In the polar regions, up to 40% of the phytoplankton would be replaced by these tropical “invaders”, which shows that not only the equatorial oceans would be affected.

Projections of the plankton populations for the period 2081 to 2100 (Image: Reproduktion / Fabio Benedetti el al.)

Benedetti first explains that some marine areas could show an apparently positive increase in species. “But this increase in diversity could pose a serious threat to the existence and functioning of well-established marine ecosystems at higher latitudes,” he added. In mid and high latitudes, plankton communities are made up of larger organisms that are efficient at absorbing carbon and are fundamental to the food chain.

Simulations have shown that increasing temperatures make the natural environments less hospitable to these larger organisms, while favoring smaller species. According to the researchers, replacing smaller species with larger ones would result in lower carbon capture efficiency. “The only thing we can tell now is how important certain areas of the ocean are today in relation to various ecosystem services and whether that service delivery will change in the future,” they added.

The research was published in the journal Nature communication.

Source: ScienceAlert

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