Microscopic marine life helps the ocean adapt to warming

Climate change will test many of the processes that sustain life around the world, but new research from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences offers a fresh look at the planet’s resilience. The results reveal how the microscopic ocean life that fuels the carbon cycle in the Atlantic is adapting to warmer conditions. The news doesn’t mean the end of the planet’s concerns, but it may help researchers better predict the future.

the studyPosted in Nature Communication, examined 30 years of data from the Sargasso Sea and found that biological systems that regulate carbon maintain life processes despite the effects of climate change. This suggests that the surface ocean may adapt better to climate change than current scientific models account for.

“We often think of the ocean carbon cycle’s response to global warming as an on-off switch, but these results show that it’s a dimmer switch and has some flexibility to take care of itself. “, said Mike Lomas, principal investigator at the Bigelow laboratory. and lead author of the study. “It will reach its limits, however, and we should not use these results as an escape clause from the consequences of our actions.”

Carbon fuels all life and ecosystems in the water column as it is pumped from the surface to deeper waters. Phytoplankton is one of the main vectors of this carbon sequestration and transport. However, climate change puts them and the process at risk.

Phytoplankton live in surface waters, but they depend on nutrients from the deep ocean. These nutrients rise through layers of water that are separated like a cake. However, the boundaries between the layers become more defined as the ocean warms. This makes it harder for nutrients to reach phytoplankton, which could reduce their populations and shut down the biological process that sequesters carbon and sends it to the deep ocean.

“Except our research has revealed that microscopic life in the ocean reacts, absorbs carbon dioxide and continues to function even when there are few nutrients,” Lomas said.

The new study looked at key parameters such as carbon production and cycling, phytoplankton activity and nutrient availability in the same area from 1990 to 2020. The results showed that carbon export held steady at as phytoplankton populations declined because other small organisms that graze on them took over. Ecosystems have also adapted by becoming more efficient and using fewer nutrients to export carbon.

These findings provide insight into how ocean ecosystems are responding to climate change – and the methods scientists are using to study them. They highlight the importance of research to replace estimates with a more nuanced understanding of nature’s complexity.

“The success of this research underscores the need for these kinds of long-term studies,” Lomas said. “How far can we push phytoplankton before they die and really stop fixing carbon? Understanding how these processes continue to work in the face of climate challenges and where they will fail is key to predicting and preparing for the effects of climate change.

Reference: Lomas MW, Bates NR, Johnson RJ, Steinberg DK, Tanioka T. Adaptive response of carbon exports to warming Sargasso Sea. Nat Common. 2022;13(1):1211. doi:10.1038/s41467-022-28842-3

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