When variations in Earth’s orbit drive Phytoplankton evolution

Coccolithophores are microscopic algae that form tiny limestone plates, called coccoliths, around their single cells. The shape and size of coccoliths varies according to the species. After their death, coccolithophores sink to the bottom of the ocean and their coccoliths accumulate in sediments, which faithfully record the detailed evolution of these organisms over geological time.

A team of scientists led by CNRS researchers show, in an article published in Nature on December 1, 2021, that certain variations in Earth’s orbit have influenced the evolution of coccolithophores. To achieve this, no less that 9 million coccoliths, spanning an interval of 2.8 million years and several locations in the tropical ocean, were measured and classified using automated microscope techniques and artificial intelligence.

Coccolithophores, an important constituent of the plankton, evolved following the rhythm of Earth’s orbital eccentricity. Credit: Luc Beaufort / CNRS / CEREGE

The researchers observed that coccoliths underwent cycles of higher and lower diversity in size and shape, with rhythms of 100 and 400 thousand years. They also propose a cause: the more or less circular shape of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which varies at the same rhythms. Thus, when Earth’s orbit is more circular, as is the case today (this is known as low eccentricity), the equatorial regions show little seasonal variation and species that are not very specialized dominate all the oceans. Conversely, as eccentricity increases and more pronounced seasons appear near the equator, coccolithophores diversify into many specialized species, but collectively produce less limestone.

The diversity of coccolithophores and their collective limestome production evolved under the influence of Earth’s orbital eccentricity, which determines the intensity of seasonal variations near the equator. On the other hand, no link to global ice volume or temperature was found. It was therefore not global climate change that dictated micro-algae evolution but perhaps the opposite during certain periods. Credit: Luc BEAUFORT / CNRS / CEREGE

Crucially, due to their abundance and global distribution, these organisms are responsible for half of the limestone (calcium carbonate, partly composed of carbon) produced in the oceans and therefore play a major role in the carbon cycle and in determining ocean chemistry. It is therefore likely that the cyclic abundance patterns of these limestone producers played a key role in ancient climates, and may explain hitherto mysterious climate variations in past warm periods.

In other words, in the absence of ice, the biological evolution of micro-algae could have set the tempo of climates. This hypothesis remains to be confirmed.

More information: Luc Beaufort et al., Cyclic evolution of phytoplankton forced by changes in tropical seasonality, Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04195-7www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-04195-7

Humans Guilty of Breaking an Fundamental Oceanic Law of Nature

A new international study carried out by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) has examined the distribution of biomass across all life in the oceans, from bacteria to whales. Their quantification of human impact reveals a fundamental alteration to one of life’s largest scale patterns.

As policymakers assemble in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference, there is growing recognition that human impacts on the environment are going global and growing urgent. However, gaining a quantitative perspective on these impacts has remained elusive.

Scientists from the ICTA-UAB in Spain, the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Germany, Queensland University of Technology in Australia, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and McGill University in Canada have used advances in ocean observation and large meta-analyses to show that human impacts have already had major consequences for the larger oceanic species, and have dramatically changed one of life’s largest scale patterns – a pattern encompassing the entire ocean’s biodiversity, from bacteria to whales.

Early samples of marine plankton biomass from 50 years ago led researchers to hypothesize that roughly equal amounts of biomass occur at all sizes. For example, although bacteria are 23 orders of magnitude smaller than a blue whale, they are also 23 orders of magnitude more abundant. This size-spectrum hypothesis has since remained unchallenged, even though it was never verified globally from bacteria to whales. The authors of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, sought to test this hypothesis on a global scale for the first time. They used historical reconstructions and marine ecosystem models to estimate biomass before industrial scale fishing got underway (pre-1850) and compared this data to the present-day.

Figure about the research. Credit: Ian Hatton, Eric Galbraith et al.

“One of the biggest challenges to comparing organisms spanning bacteria to whales is the enormous differences in scale,” recalls ICTA researcher and lead author Dr. Ian Hatton, currently based at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences. “The ratio of their masses is equivalent to that between a human being and the entire Earth. We estimated organisms at the small end of the scale from more than 200,000 water samples collected globally, but larger marine life required completely different methods.”

Their approach focused on 12 major groups of aquatic life over roughly 33,000 grid points of the ocean. Evaluating the pre-industrial ocean conditions (pre-1850) largely confirmed the original hypothesis: there is a remarkably constant biomass across size classes.

“We were amazed to see that each order of magnitude size class contains approximately 1 gigaton of biomass globally,” remarks co-author Dr. Eric Galbraith of the ICTA-UAB and a current professor at McGill University. However, he was quick to point out exceptions at either extreme. While bacteria are over-represented in the cold, dark regions of the ocean, the largest whales are relatively rare, thus highlighting exceptions from the original hypothesis.

In contrast with an even biomass spectrum in the pre-1850 ocean, an investigation of the spectrum at present revealed human impacts on ocean biomass through a new lens. While fishing and whaling only account for less than 3 percent of human food consumption, their effect on the biomass spectrum is devastating: large fish and marine mammals such as dolphins have experienced a biomass loss of 2 Gt (60% reduction), with the largest whales suffering an unsettling almost 90% decimation. The authors estimate that these losses already outpace potential biomass losses even under extreme climate change scenarios.

“Humans have impacted the ocean in a more dramatic fashion than merely capturing fish. It seems that we have broken the size spectrum – one of the largest power law distributions known in nature,

reflects ICTA researcher and co-author Dr. Ryan Heneghan. These results provide a new quantitative perspective on the extent to which anthropogenic activities have altered life at the global scale. 

More information: The global ocean size spectrum from bacteria to whales (2021). Hatton, Heneghan, Bar-On and Galbraith, 2021, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abh3732

The Ocean Decade at COP 26

COP26 is the 2021 United Nations climate change conference

For nearly three decades the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits – called COPs – which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. In that time climate change has gone from being a fringe issue to a global priority. Specifically part of the COP conference is focused on our oceans and seas. Part of the COP discussions includes the ‘Ocean Decade’.

What is the Ocean Decade?

The Ocean Decade provides a ‘once-in a-lifetime’ opportunity to create a new foundation across the
science-policy interface to strengthen the management of the ocean and coasts for the benefit of humanity and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The Ocean Decade Implementation Plan outlines ten Decade Challenges, representing the most immediate and pressing needs of the Decade.

Link to the plan below:

Marine Plankton helps produce clouds, but existing clouds keep new ones at bay

Marine plankton breathe more than 20 million tons of sulfur into the air every year, mostly in the form of dimethyl sulfide (DMS). In the air, this chemical can transform into sulfuric acid, which helps produce clouds by giving a site for water droplets to form. Over the scale of the world’s oceans, this process affects the entire climate.

But new research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others reveals that more than one-third of the DMS emitted from the sea can never help new clouds form because it is lost to the clouds themselves. The new findings significantly alter the prevailing understanding of how marine life influences clouds and may change the way scientists predict how cloud formation responds to changes in the oceans.


 By reflecting sunlight back into space and controlling rainfall, clouds play significant roles in the global climate. Accurately predicting them is essential to understanding the effects of climate change.

More information: Novak et al PNAS October 19, 2021 118 (42) e2110472118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2110472118

Australian wildfires triggered massive Phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean

Clouds of smoke and ash from wildfires that ravaged Australia in 2019 and 2020 triggered widespread phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean thousands of miles downwind to the east, a new Duke University-led study by an international team of scientists finds.

The study study, published in Nature, is the first to conclusively link a large-scale response in marine life to fertilization by pyrogenic—or fire-made—iron aerosols from a wildfire.

It shows that tiny aerosol particles of iron in the windborne smoke and ash fertilized the water as they fell into it, providing nutrients to fuel blooms at a scale unprecedented in that region.

Phytoplankton require iron for photosynthesis

The study’s co-author Prof Peter Strutton, of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, likened the phytoplankton bloom to “the entire Sahara desert turning into a moderately productive grassland for a couple of months”. “The entire Southern Ocean is basically low in iron because it’s a long way from dust sources, so any small amount of iron that gets deposited there can cause a strong response,” Strutton said.

The discovery raises intriguing new questions about the role wildfires may play in spurring the growth of microscopic marine phytoplankton, which absorb large quantities of climate-warming carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere through photosynthesis and are the foundation of the oceanic food web.

A satellite image shows smoke from the 2020-21 Australian wildfires covering parts of the Southern Ocean. Credit: Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communication Technology.

Our results provide strong evidence that pyrogenic iron from wildfires can fertilize the oceans, potentially leading to a significant increase in carbon uptake by phytoplankton,” said Professor Nicolas Cassar, of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The phytoplankton blooms triggered by the Australian wildfires were so intense and extensive that the subsequent increase in photosynthesis may have temporarily offset a substantial fraction of the fires’ CO2 emissions, he said. But it’s still unclear how much of the carbon absorbed by that event, or by blooms triggered by other wildfires, remains safely stored away in the ocean and how much is released back into the atmosphere. Determining that is the next challenge, Cassar said.

Carbon uptake

The researchers estimate the amount of carbon taken up by phytoplankton cells as a result of the bloom was equivalent to around 95% of the emissions generated by the 2019-20 bushfires.

For that carbon to be permanently removed from the atmosphere, however, the phytoplankton cells would have to sink into the deep ocean and be stored there, Strutton said.

There’s a lot of recycling of energy and biomass that happens in the surface waters. It’s likely that a lot of that carbon that was initially taken up might have been re-released to the atmosphere when those phytoplankton cells started to break down or were eaten.

Large wildfires, like the record-breaking blazes that devastated parts of Australia between 2019 and 2020 and the fires now raging in the western U.S., Siberia, the Amazon, the Mediterranean and elsewhere, are projected to occur more and more frequently with climate change, noted Weiyi Tang, a postdoctoral fellow in geosciences at Princeton University, who co-led the study as a doctoral candidate in Cassar’s lab at Duke.

These fires represent an unexpected and previously under-documented impact of climate change on the marine environment, with potential feedbacks on our global climate.

Pyrogenic aerosols are produced when trees, brush and other forms of biomass are burned. Aerosol particles are light enough to be carried in a fire’s windborne smoke and ash for months, often over long distances.

More information: Widespread phytoplankton blooms triggered by 2019–2020 Australian wildfires, Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03805-8 , www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03805-8

IPBES/IPCC Report: Tackling the biodiversity and climate crises together

Unprecedented changes in climate and biodiversity, driven by human activities, have combined and increasingly threaten nature, human lives, livelihoods and well-being around the world. Biodiversity loss and climate change are both driven by human economic activities and mutually reinforce each other. Neither will be successfully resolved unless both are tackled together.

This is the message of a new IPES/IPCC report, published by 50 of the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts. This is the first time that the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – two intergovernmental bodies have collaborated together.

The report finds that previous policies have largely tackled biodiversity loss and climate change independently of each other, and that addressing the synergies between mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change, while considering their social impacts, offers the opportunity to maximize benefits and meet global development goals.

Among the most important available actions identified in the report are:

  • Stopping the loss and degradation of carbon- and species-rich ecosystems on land and in the ocean, especially forests, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands and savannahs; coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, kelp forests and seagrass meadows; as well as deep water and polar blue carbon habitats. The report highlights that reducing deforestation and forest degradation can contribute to lowering human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, by a wide range from 0.4-5.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year.
A multifunctional ’scape across land, freshwater and marine biomes, including
large, intact wilderness spaces (blue circles), shared spaces (yellow circles) and
anthromes (red circles).

Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Arctic warming three times faster than the planet

Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)

The Arctic has warmed three times more quickly than the planet as a whole, and faster than previously thought according to the newly published ‘Arctic Climate Change update 2021’.

Arctic sea ice looks set to be an early victims of rising temperatures, with each fraction of a degree making a big difference: the chance of it disappearing entirely in summer is 10 times greater if Earth warms by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels compared to 1.5C, the goal set by the 2015 Paris Accord.

The finding comes from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) in their new report.

In less than half a century, from 1971 to 2019, the Arctic’s average annual temperature rose by 3.1C, compared to 1C for the planet as a whole.

That’s more than previously suspected. In a 2019 report on Earth’s frozen spaces, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that Arctic surface air temperature has likely increased “by more than double the global average”.

According to researchers, a turning point came in 2004 when the temperature in the Arctic surged for largely unexplained reason.

Since then, warming has continued at a rate 30 percent higher than in previous decades.

Warming has immediate consequences for the Arctic ecosystem, including changes in habitat, food habits and interactions between animals and the migration of some species.

The warming and freshening of the Arctic Ocean directly and indirectly affect the lifecycles of marine species, leading to changes in seasonality, range shifts, and broad changes in ocean ecosystems.

The decline in sea ice affects marine ecosystems through changes in the open water areas and increases in the length of the open water period (both of which affect phytoplankton and ice algae, including the timing of phytoplankton blooms), as well as under-ice productivity and diversity. These changes are having cascading effects through ecosystems, with widespread impacts on the distribution, seasonality, and abundance of a variety of species.

Migrating narwhals

Satellite data show an increasing trend in primary production in all regions of the Arctic Ocean over the past two decades, explained by complex changes in light and nutrient conditions. The consequences of warming near the ocean surface on primary producers in the surface and subsurface ocean layers are still poorly understood, and there is new evidence that dominant Arctic phytoplankton species may be able to adapt to higher temperatures.

Phytoplankton bloom in northern Norway. NASA

Changes in the Arctic Ocean gateways

Warmer waters from the Pacific and Atlantic are also pushing farther into the Arctic Ocean, with widespread impacts on ocean ecosystems. The composition of Arctic plankton communities that form the basis of marine food webs is changing, as are the distribution and abundance of a variety of invertebrate, fish, and marine mammal species.

Find the summary report here:


Potentially toxic plankton algae may play a crucial role in the future Arctic

As the sea ice shrinks in the Arctic, the plankton community that produces food for the entire marine food chain is changing. New research shows that a potentially toxic species of plankton algae that lives both by doing photosynthesis and absorbing food may become an important player in the Arctic Ocean as the future sea ice becomes thinner and thinner.

Microscopic plankton algae, invisible to the naked eye, are the foundation of the marine food web, feeding all the ocean´s living creatures from small crustaceans to large whales. Plankton algae need light and nutrients to produce food by photosynthesis.

A thick layer of sea ice – sometimes covered with snow – can reduce how much sunlight penetrates into the water and stop the algae getting enough light. However, as the sea ice is becoming thinner and less widespread in the Arctic, more and more light is penetrating into the sea. Does this mean more plankton algae and thus more food for more fish, whales and seabirds in the Arctic? The story is not so simple.

More light in the sea will only lead to a higher production of plankton algae if they also have enough nutrients – and this is often not the case. With the recent increase in freshwater melt from Arctic glaciers and the general freshening of the Arctic Ocean, more and more fresh and nutrient-depleted water is running out into the fjords and further out into the sea. The fresher water lies on top of the more salty ocean and stops nutrients from the deeper layers from mixing up towards the surface where there is light. And it is only here that plankton algae can be active.

Mixotrophic algae play on several strings

However, a new study published in the journal Nature – Scientific Reports shows that so-called mixotrophic plankton algae may play a crucial role in the production of food in the Arctic Sea.

When the spring sets in in the Arctic, the metre-thick sea ice begins to melt. Melt ponds on the surface of the sea ice bring so much sunlight into the underlying seawater that the mixotrophic plankton algae start to grow dramatically. During an approx. 9-day period, the plankton can produce up to half of the total annual pelagic production in the high-Arctic fjord, Young Sound, in northeast Greenland. Several mixotrophic algae species are toxic. Photo credit: Lars Chresten Lund Hansen and Dorte H. Søgaard

Mixotrophic algae are small, single-celled plankton algae that can perform photosynthesis but also obtain energy by eating other algae and bacteria. This allows them to stay alive and grow even when their photosynthesis does not have enough light and nutrients in the water.

In northeast Greenland, a team of researchers measured the production of plankton algae under the sea ice in the high-Arctic fjord Young Sound, located near Daneborg.

“We showed that the plankton algae under the sea ice actually produced up to half of the total annual plankton production in the fjord,” says Dorte H. Søgaard from the Greenland Climate Research Centre, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, who headed the study.

“Mixotrophic plankton algae have the advantage that they can sustain themselves by eating other algae and bacteria as a supplement to photosynthesis when there isn’t enough light. This means that they are ready to perform photosynthesis even when very little light penetrates into the sea. In addition, many mixotrophic algae can live in relatively fresh water and at very low concentrations of nutrients – conditions that often prevail in the water layers under the sea ice in the spring when the ice melts,” Dorte H. Søgaard explains.

Toxic algae kill fish

For nine days, the researchers measured an algal bloom driven by mixotrophic algae occurring under the thick but melting sea ice in Young Sound during the Arctic spring in July, as the sun gained more power and more melt ponds spread across the sea ice, gradually letting through more light.

The algae belong to a group called haptophytes. Many of these algae are toxic, and in this study they bloomed in quantities similar to those previously observed in the Skagerrak near southern Norway. Here, the toxic plankton algae killed large amounts of salmon in Norwegian fish farms.

“We know that haptophytes often appear in areas with low salinity – as seen in the Baltic Sea, for example. It is therefore very probable that these mixotrophic-driven algae blooms will appear more frequently in a more freshwater-influenced future Arctic Ocean and that this shift in dominant algae to a mixotrophic algae species might have a large ecological and socio-economic impact.” says Dorte H. Søgaard.

The researchers behind the project point out that it is the first time that a bloom of mixotrophic algae has been recorded under the sea ice in the Arctic.

More information: An under-ice bloom of mixotrophic haptophytes in low nutrient and freshwater-influenced Arctic waters.http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-82413-y

Record-high Arctic freshwater will flow to Labrador Sea, affecting local and global oceans

Freshwater is accumulating in the Arctic Ocean. The Beaufort Sea, which is the largest Arctic Ocean freshwater reservoir, has increased its freshwater content by 40% over the past two decades. How and where this water will flow into the Atlantic Ocean is important for local and global ocean conditions.

A new study shows that this freshwater travels through the Canadian Archipelago to reach the Labrador Sea, rather than through the wider marine passageways that connect to seas in Northern Europe. The open-access study was published in Nature Communications.

“The Canadian Archipelago is a major conduit between the Arctic and the North Atlantic,” said lead author Jiaxu Zhang, a UW postdoctoral researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Ecosystem Studies. “In the future, if the winds get weaker and the freshwater gets released, there is a potential for this high amount of water to have a big influence in the Labrador Sea region.”

The finding has implications for the Labrador Sea marine environment, since Arctic water tends to be fresher but also rich in nutrients. This pathway also affects larger oceanic currents, namely a conveyor-belt circulation in the Atlantic Ocean in which colder, heavier water sinks in the North Atlantic and comes back along the surface as the Gulf Stream. Fresher, lighter water entering the Labrador Sea could slow that overturning circulation.

A simulated red dye tracer released from the Beaufort Gyre in the Artic Ocean (center top) shows freshwater transport through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, along Baffin Island to the western Labrador Sea, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, where it reduces surface salinity.

“We know that the Arctic Ocean has one of the biggest climate change signals,” said co-author Wei Cheng at the UW-based Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Atmosphere Studies. “Right now this freshwater is still trapped in the Arctic. But once it gets out, it can have a very large impact.”

Fresher water reaches the Arctic Ocean through rain, snow, rivers, inflows from the relatively fresher Pacific Ocean, as well as the recent melting of Arctic Ocean sea ice. Fresher, lighter water floats at the top, and clockwise winds in the Beaufort Sea push that lighter water together to create a dome.

When those winds relax, the dome will flatten and the freshwater gets released into the North Atlantic.

“People have already spent a lot of time studying why the Beaufort Sea freshwater has gotten so high in the past few decades,” said Zhang, who began the work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “But they rarely care where the freshwater goes, and we think that’s a much more important problem.”

Using a technique Zhang developed to track ocean salinity, the researchers simulated the ocean circulation and followed the Beaufort Sea freshwater’s spread in a past event that occurred from 1983 to 1995.

Their experiment showed that most of the freshwater reached the Labrador Sea through the Canadian Archipelago, a complex set of narrow passages between Canada and Greenland. This region is poorly studied and was thought to be less important for freshwater flow than the much wider Fram Strait, which connects to the Northern European seas.

In the model, the 1983-1995 freshwater release traveled mostly along the North American route and significantly reduced the salinities in the Labrador Sea — a freshening of 0.2 parts per thousand on its shallower western edge, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and of 0.4 parts per thousand inside the Labrador Current.

The volume of freshwater now in the Beaufort Sea is about twice the size of the case studied, at more than 23,300 cubic kilometers, or more than 5,500 cubic miles. This volume of freshwater released into the North Atlantic could have significant effects. The exact impact is unknown. The study focused on past events, and current research is looking at where today’s freshwater buildup might end up and what changes it could trigger.

“A freshwater release of this size into the subpolar North Atlantic could impact a critical circulation pattern, called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which has a significant influence on Northern Hemisphere climate,” said co-author Wilbert Weijer at Los Alamos National Lab.

More information: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21470-3

Will climate change outpace species adaptation?

Species evolve heat tolerance more slowly than cold tolerance

Many species might be left vulnerable in the face of climate change, unable to adapt their physiologies to respond to rapid global warming. According to a team of international researchers, species evolve heat tolerance more slowly than cold tolerance, and the level of heat they can adapt to has limits.

In a study published in the Nature Communications, McGill professor Jennifer Sunday and her co-authors wanted to understand how species’ thermal limits have evolved. To examine variation across the tree of life, the researchers developed the largest available database compiling thermal tolerances for all types of organisms (GlobTherm database).

Migrating mullet

The researchers found that first and foremost, a species’ thermal tolerance is linked to the current climate where they live. “It’s logical that thermal limits mostly match a species’ present-day climate but tracing the evolutionary history of thermal limits can reveal how species got to be where they are today,” says Sunday, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology.

The researchers also found that tolerance to cold has evolved much faster than tolerance to heat, particularly in endotherms as compared to ectotherms and plants. Endothermic animals are those that generate metabolic heat to regulate their own body temperature – for example, mammals and birds – while ectothermic animals are those that regulate their body temperature using external heat sources, like reptiles, fishes and invertebrates.

One cause of this disparity could be that heat tolerance has reached an evolutionary barrier, called an ‘attractor,’ beyond which further evolution is constrained or selected against. “This is very concerning because it suggests that the vast majority of species will not be able to adapt fast enough to survive the unprecedented rate of contemporary climate change,” says co-author Joanne Bennett of Leipzig University and University of Canberra.

The results of this study are particularly relevant to conservation management, say the researchers. Protecting and creating areas that provide refuges for biodiversity from upper temperature extremes is a key strategy for conservation managers.

More information: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21263-8