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"In 2007, the reproduction rate of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine decreased suddenly by a factor of five - what used to take a day now takes five. Such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth."

Diatoms are one of the most common types of phytoplankton. (photo: Bangor Daily News)
Diatoms are one of the most common types of phytoplankton. (photo: Bangor Daily News)

Threat to Single-Celled Plants That Support All Life

By Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News

13 June 12


hytoplankton. If the mention of the tiny plant organisms that permeate the world’s oceans isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider this: They produce the oxygen in every other breath you take.

Still not interested? This is where it’s hard not to take notice. In 2007, the reproduction rate of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine decreased suddenly by a factor of five — what used to take a day now takes five — and according to a recently released study by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, it hasn’t bounced back.

So what does it mean? According to Barney Balch, the lab’s senior research scientist and lead author of the study, such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren. But the 12-year Bigelow study focused only on the Gulf of Maine, which leads to the question, will it spread?

“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to know that if you shut down the base of the marine food web, the results won’t be positive,” said Balch.

Balch said the study, which was published recently in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, provides one of the strongest links to date between increases in rainfall and temperature over the years and the Gulf of Maine’s ecosystem. Key factors in the study’s conclusions were driven by 100 years of records on rainfall and river discharge, both of which have increased by between 13 and 20 percent over the past century.

In fact, of the eight heaviest rainfall years in the past century, four of them fell between 2005 and 2010. Balch said that increased precipitation, along with water melting from the polar ice caps, could be the reason for the problems discovered in the phytoplankton regeneration rate. The fact that Gulf of Maine’s water temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees celsius — which is on par with what is being seen around the world — could also be a factor.

“The major change that we’re seeing is that we are now able to put [precipitation and temperature data] into better context,” said Balch. “It’s so striking that the increase is so statistically significant.”

Though heavier water flows into the Gulf of Maine might be a major factor, Balch said it may actually be side-effects of that phenomenon — such as decreased salinity and increasing amounts of materials like rotting plant matter being swept up in the stronger currents — that are actually causing the problem. In other words, when the water is brown it’s bad for phytoplankton because the added material in the water starves the single-celled plants of sunlight.

During the 12-year study, which focused on the area of sea between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, researchers noticed that plumes of material coming from Maine rivers were reaching 70-100 kilometers into the ocean — farther than had ever been seen before. The outflows also prevent nutrient-rich deep-ocean water from circulating into the Gulf of Maine.

“When you collect the amount of data that we’ve collected, it’s hard to discount the significance,” said Balch. “I know there are skeptics out there who still discount the issue of climate change, but the evidence now is just striking. We need to be thinking very carefully about trying to slow this down. It didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to go away overnight.”

Balch said that the Gulf of Maine is small compared to the world’s oceans, but not without the capacity to have a marked effect on the overall ecosystem of the Atlantic Ocean. If the problem with the phytoplankton persists, fishermen will notice its effects long before the world’s oxygen supply suffers. Phytoplankton is a key food source for several species of larval fish and lobster populations.

“People shouldn’t freak out about this but they should think very carefully about the long-term changes that we humans are making,” he said. “This study shows the incredibly tight connection that there is between land and the ocean, especially in the coastal ocean.” your social media marketing partner


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+15 # Adoregon 2012-06-13 11:55
No, don't freak out; hell you might actually do something to wake the majority out of their somnambulistic delusions.
You might demand "our" government actually start listening to scientists who study this stuff rather than being bulldozed by corporations and individuals with lots of money.

Lots of money is NOT going to save our collective asses.
+18 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-13 11:56
We are lucky photoplankton is not affected by oil spills, Corexit, radiation leaks, or other pollution, eh?
-21 # Papá Kokopelli 2012-06-13 12:01
I am no climate-change denier, but if the effect was sudden, in 2007 as this article says, and the changes in temperature and rainfall were measured over a 100-year period, I´d say there has to be a lot more analysis of probable/possib le causes for anybody to take this seriously.
+11 # Todd Williams 2012-06-13 15:22
No climate change denier? You just denyed it! I am turning to jello with these kind of people.
0 # Papá Kokopelli 2012-06-14 01:30
Dude, read the article...
+16 # Michael Lee Bugg 2012-06-13 14:47
If the number of comments are indicative of the number reading this article then we are all in as much trouble as the phytoplankton! The adverse effects of climate change are more important and threatening than about all other issues posted by RSN with the exception of what is still happening at Fukashima. Humans as a species are just not as intelligent as we give ourselves credit for based on the abilities of a small percentage of the population. This rock and it's ecosystem is an oasis in a vast uninhabitable galaxy, yet most people take it for granted and treat it the way termites treat a house!
+5 # Glen 2012-06-14 08:49
I noticed the lack of conversation and interest in the subject, myself. Not just on RSN.

"This rock" has only the atmosphere between us and that "uninhabitable galaxy" and that atmosphere is dying as quickly as the planet.

Humans are rather knowingly ignorant and like it that way. But also, they feel helpless before industry and governments.

Years ago my students, when viewing various planets were oooing and aaahing over Saturn and Jupiter, but soon realized that Earth is the truly beautiful planet.
+3 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-06-15 11:29
None of us is as dumb as all of us.
+2 # She Cee 2012-06-13 22:17
I find it unbelievable that people turn a blind eye to the evidence of what we are doing to our planet.

I heard this morning that scientists now say we have reach the point of no return as regards climate change.

It's beginning to look more and more likely that the Aztec (is it Aztec) calendar predicting the end of the world in 2012, Dec. may be true.
+3 # Glen 2012-06-14 08:44
It's the Maya calendar, but the information is incorrect. Their calendar is cyclic, rather than time ending. What we would see of their calendar is a renewal, not the end of the world.
+4 # chrisconnolly 2012-06-14 11:41
We as a species seem to be proving our truly unintelligent intelligence. We can invent and prosper to our demise but can't see the destructive writing on the wall. We all know that our own wells can be contaminated by the neighbor but can't expand that understanding to our earth's water systems. We can understand the problems for the soil when a rancher over grazes a section of land but can't extrapolate this understanding out to the entire agribusiness practice of over use. We can understand the consequences for our immediate situation when our cars run out of gas but can't see the bigger picture of peak oil. We can directly correlate the health hazards of cigarette smoke in a restaurant but can't relate it to our polluted atmosphere. We can't seem to get the tragedy of the commons because it doesn't benefit us now. I am so sorry for our children and grandchildren. We are leaving them no life.
0 # 8myveggies 2012-06-15 23:05
Beautifully stated. Thank you.
+4 # futhark 2012-06-14 14:26
Speaking as a biologist, algae, even the eukaryotic algae, are not technically classified as plants. Plants are autotrophic multicellular organisms with differentiate cell types and tissues.

This trivia aside, the article is correct in identifying the importance of algae as oxygen generators and as the basis for almost all aquatic food chains. Without marine algae the world would be far less habitable by animals of all kinds, including humans.
0 # futhark 2012-06-15 23:15
Far more planning needs to be done to ensure that Earth will be habitable for all present life forms over the next several millennia. There's too much focus on greed and short term gain.

I ran across this Native American traditional saying recently that conveys more wisdom than all the political policy coming out of Congress in a year or a decade:

"We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

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