Rapid Plankton Growth Confusing Scientists

Plankton is surprisingly thriving with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The rapid growth of a microscopic marine algae in the North Atlantic is confounding scientists, according to an article on phys.org.

Everyone seems to agree the cause for the thriving plankton, known as coccolithophores, is because of increased carbon dioxide in the air, but they are not so sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing.

Anand Gnanadesikan, associate professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins said something strange was going on in the area, and that it was happening much more quickly than they scientists had predicted.

Gnanadesikan, one of the five authors on the study, said the finding was good news for those sea creatures that eat the plankton, but the scientists were not clear on what those creatures were.  He said the discovery just points out how little we know about the complex functions of an ecosystem, and cautioned that previous models of how these systems respond to climate change may be too conservative.

The team analyzed the data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey from the North Atlantic Ocean and North Sea since the mid-1960’s, and the data suggest the population spike of the plankton is being caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to Sara Rivero-Calle, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student and lead author of the study.

Rivero-Calle adds the team’s statistical analyses point to carbon dioxide as the best predictor, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The CPR survey was first launched in the 1930’s by a British marine biologist, and is conducted by using mechanical plankton gathering devices on commercial ships on their routes through the area.

Experts thought the increased acidity in the ocean due to the levels of carbon dioxide would have harmed the population of the coccolithophores, but were surprised to find the opposite.  However, the abundance of these organisms has consistently been seen as a marker for environmental change over history.

Gnanadesikan says the coccolithophores clearly represent a major shift in the ecosystem, but until we understand why, we can’t understand the driving influences of such a shift.

The team’s findings were published in the journal Science.

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