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Small marine organisms' big changes could affect world climate
Date:10/25/2012

In the future, warmer waters could significantly change ocean distribution of populations of phytoplankton, tiny organisms that could have a major effect on climate change.

Reporting in this week's online journal Science Express, researchers show that by the end of the 21st century, warmer oceans will cause populations of these marine microorganisms to thrive near the poles and shrink in equatorial waters.

"In the tropical oceans, we are predicting a 40 percent drop in potential diversity, the number of strains of phytoplankton," says Mridul Thomas, a biologist at Michigan State University (MSU) and co-author of the journal paper.

"If the oceans continue to warm as predicted," says Thomas, "there will be a sharp decline in the diversity of phytoplankton in tropical waters and a poleward shift in species' thermal niches--if they don't adapt."

Thomas co-authored the paper with scientists Colin Kremer, Elena Litchman and Christopher Klausmeier, all of MSU.

"The research is an important contribution to predicting plankton productivity and community structure in the oceans of the future," says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research along with NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

"The work addresses how phytoplankton species are affected by a changing environment," says Garrison, "and the really difficult question of whether adaptation to these changes is possible."

The MSU scientists say that since phytoplankton play a key role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and therefore global climate, the shift could in turn cause further climate change.

Phytoplankton and Earth's climate are inextricably intertwined.

"These results will allow scientists to make predictions about how global warming will shift phytoplankton species distribution and diversity in the oceans," says Ala
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert  

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