Wednesday, 24 April, 2019

Colour of oceans to change by end of 21st century

Credit CC0 Public Domain Credit CC0 Public Domain
Cary Marshall | 05 February, 2019, 14:25

In order to account for these natural events, the researchers tweaked a previous global model used previously to predict phytoplankton changes in response to rising temperatures and ocean acidification to instead predict how climate change is affecting phytoplankton.

In the interim, Dutkiewicz said, paying close attention to changes in the oceans' colour can offer the first clues of the changes that are underway. Phytoplankton are mostly single-celled microscopic organisms that live in watery environments. Nitrogen also plays a key role in regulating the global carbon cycle.

As ocean temperatures rise - perhaps as much as 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the aforementioned timeframe - the growth of the plankton will be heightened, making the blues and the greens of the ocean more vibrant, as sunlight interacts with water molecules and the blue part of the spectrum of sunlight hits it.

The oceans appear blue because water molecules alone absorb nearly all sunlight except for the blue part of the spectrum, but with any organism in the ocean, phytoplankton for instance, the pigment in it will absorb less in the green portions and reflect more green light.

The presence of phytoplankton in waters typically indicates the health of water: When there is just enough of it, life thrives and the water takes on the "healthy" green colour. They consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Regions where there are a lot of nutrients, like in the Southern Ocean or parts of the North Atlantic, will see even faster-growing phytoplankton because those waters are warming with climate change.

"Other things will absorb or scatter it, like something with a hard shell".

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It was also programmed to estimate the specific wavelengths of light that are absorbed and reflected by the ocean, taking into consideration the amount and type of organisms in a given region. "So it's a complicated process, how light is reflected back out of the ocean to give it its color". The resulting model can be fed with various values of inputs, primarily global temperatures. Dutkiewicz said those instruments will probably provide early signals of how climate change is altering the oceans and their colour.

"Chlorophyll is changing, but you can't really see it because of its incredible natural variability", Dutkiewicz says.

Since the 1990s, satellites have taken regular measurements of how much chlorophyll is in the ocean.

The research effort for the new finding was two-fold: Scientists built a detailed model of phytoplankton communities across the globe to accurately simulate the impacts of climate change on the ratios of different algae species. "But you can see a significant, climate-related shift in some of these wavebands, in the signal being sent out to the satellites".

"And it will likely be one of the earliest warning signals that we have changed the ecology of the ocean". That simple adjustment in their model gave more intense hues of green and blue.

"In the same way that plants on land are green, phytoplankton are green as well, so the amount and different types of phytoplankton affect the colour of the ocean surface", said Dr Anna Hickman, co-author of the research from the school of ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton. "It could be potentially quite serious". They also simulated how phytoplankton absorbs and reflects light, learning that climate change will effectively alter the ocean's coloring near the surface.

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