Ocean Phytoplankton Reveals Major Global Changes
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PHYTOPLANKTON IN NORTHERN OCEANS HAVE DECLINED FROM 1980s LEVELS
Goddard Space Flight Center
August 08, 2002
Since the early 1980s, ocean phytoplankton concentrations that drive the
marine food chain have declined substantially in many areas of open water in
Northern oceans, according to a comparison of two datasets taken from
satellites. At the same time, phytoplankton levels in open water areas near
the equator have increased significantly. Since phytoplankton are especially
concentrated in the North, the study found an overall annual decrease in
The authors of the study, Watson Gregg, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight
Center, Greenbelt, Md., and Margarita Conkright, a scientist at the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Oceanographic Data
Center, Silver Spring, Md., also discovered what appears to be an
association between more recent regional climate changes, such as higher sea
surface temperatures and reductions in surface winds, and areas where
phytoplankton levels have dropped.
Phytoplankton consist of many diverse species of microscopic free-floating
marine plants that serve as food to other ocean-living forms of life. "The
whole marine food chain depends on the health and productivity of the
phytoplankton," Gregg said.
The researchers compared two sets of satellite data -- one from 1979 to 1986
and the other from 1997 to 2000 -- that measured global ocean chlorophyll,
the green pigment in plants that absorbs the Sun's rays for energy during
photosynthesis. The earlier dataset came from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner
(CZCS) aboard NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite, while the latter dataset was from
the Sea-Viewing Wide Field of View Sensor (SeaWiFS) on the OrbView-2
The researchers re-analyzed the CZCS data with the same processing methods
used for the SeaWiFS data, and then blended both satellite measurements with
surface observations of chlorophyll from ocean buoys and research vessels
over corresponding time periods. By doing so, the researchers reduced errors
and made the two records compatible.
Results indicated that phytoplankton in the North Pacific Ocean dropped by
over 30 percent during summer from the mid- 80s to the present.
Phytoplankton fell by 14 percent in the North Atlantic Ocean over the same
Also, summer plankton concentrations rose by over 50 percent in both the
Northern Indian and the Equatorial Atlantic Oceans since the mid-80s. Large
areas of the Indian Ocean showed substantial increases during all four
"This is the first time that we are really talking about the ocean
chlorophyll and showing that the ocean's biology is changing, possibly as a
result of climate change," said Conkright. The researchers add that it
remains unclear whether the changes are due to a longer-term climate change
or a shorter-term ocean cycle.
Phytoplankton thrive when sunlight is optimal and nutrients from lower
layers of the ocean get mixed up to the surface. Higher sea surface
temperatures can reduce the availability of nutrients by creating a warmer
surface layer of water. A warmer ocean surface layer reduces mixing with
cooler, deeper nutrient-rich waters. Throughout the year, winds can stir up
surface waters, and create upwelling of nutrients from below, which also add
to blooms. A reduction in winds can also limit the availability of
For example, in the North Pacific, summer sea surface temperatures were .4
degrees Celsius (.7 Fahrenheit) warmer from the early 1980s to 2000, and
average spring wind stresses on the ocean decreased by about 8 percent,
which may have caused the declines in summer plankton levels in that region.
Phytoplankton currently account for half the transfer of carbon dioxide from
the atmosphere back into the biosphere by photosynthesis, a process in which
plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air for growth. Since carbon
dioxide acts as a heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, the role
phytoplankton play in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere helps
reduce the rate at which CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, and may help
mitigate global warming.
The paper appears in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
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