Nature’s contingency plans

By | Science & Technology
An increase in Phytoplankton off the south west coast of England. Credit@MikePeelwikipedia

New research suggests nature may have other ways of dealing with ever-increasing global warming. The research demonstrates how phytoplankton biodiversity changes and how the survival of differing species prevails.

With the recent effects of climate change being discussed constantly in the media, warming effects beneficial to nature may have been overlooked. Many media and science publications describe a climate in which warming may become accelerated with little processes capable of abating this and few natural responses have been suggested as a possible solution to climate change. Today most scientists are confident climate change may be stimulated by human activity and this warming affects important organisms and the ecosystem cycles of planet Earth.

One of these important organisms is Plankton, a key component of ocean ecosystems worldwide which absorb as much carbon dioxide as all the trees on Earth combined. How plankton may be affected by changes in the climate has been the focus of previous studies, with changes to the population of phytoplankton over the decades being observed, some studies calculating it to have reduced by 40% since 1950. Other studies have shown how phytoplankton numbers may have risen in some regions and particular periods and how this demonstrates the overall health of the oceans and food chains. Phytoplankton through the process of photosynthesis produce around half of the planets oxygen, understanding its importance to the health of the planet may therefore be paramount.

Types of phytoplankton under a microscope.Credit@MikePeeelwikipedia

Types of phytoplankton under a microscope.Credit@MikePeeelwikipedia

Building on previous findings, new research at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London by Yvon-Ducher and colleagues, may have discovered how phytoplankton reacts to increasing climate warming. Using ponds to artificially simulate increases in temperature expected in the next century, the team compared this group to another group left at normal temperature. The team discovered phytoplankton warmed by 4 degrees may acquire 70% more diversity in its species and the rates of photosynthesis increase leading to absorption of a higher percentage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this may be measured by the subsequent production of oxygen. These species then have greater biomass and larger species dominated in the artificial ecosystem.

The team pointed out how these responses shown in experiments may be thwarted in some regions where specific natural ecological mechanisms may actually result in a reduction in phytoplankton. Gabriel Yvon-Durocher added, “The increases we’ve seen in phytoplankton biodiversity appear to be driven primarily by the effects of warming on zooplankton, the microscopic animals which eat phytoplankton.” “Higher grazing rates by the zooplankton, which prefer small abundant phytoplankton species, prevent the ecosystem being dominated by a few of these highly competitive species, allowing species which are inferior competitors for resources to coexist.” “What the study clearly shows is future global warming is likely to have a major impact on the composition, biodiversity and functioning of plankton, which may play a pivotal role in aquatic ecosystems.”

A northern Krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica) a type of zooplankton.Credit@infrogmationwikimedia

A northern Krill (Meganyctiphanes norvegica) a type of zooplankton.Credit@infrogmationwikimedia

As this research seems to contradict previous research on the link between warming and the phytoplankton population, it might suggest other factors and mechanisms may also be involved in the population fluctuation. Many scientists have noted how little is known about the Earth’s ecosystems amid regional increases in phytoplankton due to carbon dioxide increases and considering in some areas a reduction periodically occurs. Likewise, various types of phytoplankton thriving under depleted nutrient levels, release more CO2 back into the atmosphere during development although these organisms may also reflect a high percentage of light resulting in reduced warmth absorbed by the ocean. In conjunction, the fluctuating numbers of zooplankton (jellyfish, microscopic shrimp, worms etc.) may affect natural regional phytoplankton populations and fish populations; frequently determined by natural water circulation and rainfall level. A delicate balance in ecosystems may be evident.

This new research adds a little optimism to the literature on climate change and the data also adds to the knowledge of a complex ecosystem. The evidence seems to suggest nature may have future contingency plans which may be triggered when the Earth’s temperature reaches a certain level.

How may nature respond productively to climate change?

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