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.
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 inmarine 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
The Second World Ocean Assessment (WOA II) is the major output of the second cycle of the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the States of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects. It is the newest outcome of the only integrated assessment of the world’s ocean at the global level covering environmental, economic and social aspects.
WOA II is a collective effort of interdisciplinary writing teams made up of more than 300 experts from around the world, including scientists from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Plymouth. It provides scientific information on the state of the marine environment in a comprehensive and integrated manner to support decisions and actions for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goal 14, as well as the implementation of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
The report catalogues a swathe of impacts on what UN secretary general António Guterres said was the planet’s “life support system”.
Sea levels were rising, coasts were eroding, waters were heating and acidifying and the number of deoxygenated “dead zones” was rising.
Martin Edwards and Michael Moore from Plymouth Marine Laboratory who contributed to the section on human health and the oceans said “there is strong evidence of an increase in the spread of pathogens related to climate warming (e.g., Vibrio) and there is some evidence related to an increase in some harmful algal bloom species related to climate warming is some regional areas around the world. Increasingly the spread of non-indigenous species have also started to be considered as one of the major threats to global marine ecosystems through impacts on the ecosystem’s structure, function and services.
Marine litter was present in all marine habitats, the report said, and overfishing was costing societies billions. About 90% of mangrove, seagrass and marsh plant species were threatened with extinction, the report said.
The report said there had been progress in protecting more marine areas, but there were still many scientific knowledge gaps to be filled.
Specifically for the pelagic environment, climate change during the course of the twenty-first century is expected to continue to drive changes in the upper ocean that have an impact on the diversity and productivity of plankton assemblages on the regional to global scales.
These changes include an expansion of the subtropical gyres, ocean warming and acidification, decreases in salinity, increases in vertical stratification and decreases in inorganic nutrient supplies to the euphotic zone in the open ocean. Predicted biological responses to those changes on a global scale include the following:
Primary production is likely to decrease and the relative abundance of picophytoplankton is likely to increase at the expense of microplankton diatoms. These trends are likely to propagate through food webs resulting in decreases in the ocean’s carrying capacity for fisheries and in its capacity to sequester carbon through the biological pump.
Plankton food webs in the polar oceans and coastal upwelling regions will be the most affected by ocean acidification, owing to the high solubility of CO2 in cold waters.
Evolutionary arms races between marine animals overhauled ocean ecosystems on scales similar to the mass extinctions triggered by global disasters, a new study shows.
Scientists at Umeå University in Sweden and the Florida Museum of Natural History used paleontological databases to build a multilayered computer model of the history of marine life over the last 500 million years. Their analysis of the fossil record closely echoed a seminal 1981 study by paleontologist J. John Sepkoski – with one key difference.
Sepkoski’s ground-breaking statistical work showed abrupt ocean-wide changes in biodiversity about 490 and 250 million years ago, corresponding to two mass extinction events. These events divided marine life into what he called “three great evolutionary faunas,” each dominated by a unique set of animals.
But the new model reveals a fourth.
The fierce fight for survival that played out between predatory marine animals and their prey about 250 to 66 million years ago may have been an equally powerful force, reshaping ocean diversity into what we see today. This third grand transition was much more gradual than its predecessors and driven by organisms, rather than external processes.
“What we learned is that not all major shifts in animal life have been related to mass extinction events,” said study lead author Alexis Rojas, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. Rojas is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Integrated Science Lab, a hub dedicated to interdisciplinary research at Umeå University.
Many scientists have long held the view that external factors such as volcanic activity, asteroid impacts or changes in climate are the primary drivers of major shifts in the Earth’s biosphere, said study co-author Michal Kowalewski, Rojas’ doctoral adviser and the Florida Museum Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology.
“The fossil record tells us that some of the key transitions in the history of life were rapid changes triggered by abrupt external factors. But this study shows that some of those major transitions were more gradual and may have been driven by biological interactions between organisms,” he said.
More information: Rojas, A., Calatayud, J., Kowalewski, M. et al. A multiscale view of the Phanerozoic fossil record reveals the three major biotic transitions. Commun Biol4, 309 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-01805-y
The ocean is dynamic in nature, playing a crucial role as a planetary thermostat that buffer global warming. However, in response to climate change, the ocean has generally become stabler over the past 50 years. Six times stabler, in fact, than previously estimated–as shown by a new study that researchers from the CNRS, Sorbonne University, and IFREMER have conducted within the scope of an international collaboration.* Warming waters, melting glaciers, and disrupted precipitation patterns have created an ocean surface layer cut off from the depths. Just as oil and water separate, so this division of surface and deeper waters limits oceanic mixing, making it harder for the ocean to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, climate change has strengthened winds, which has thickened the ocean surface layer by 5 to 10 m per decade over the last half century. This has hindered vital access to light for most marine organisms within it. Published in Nature, these findings underscore the consequences of climate change and anthropogenic phenomena for the ocean, the life it harbours, and its capacity to remain a global thermostat into the future.
This work calls for reconsideration of the drivers of ongoing shifts in marine primary production, and reveals stark changes in the world’s upper ocean over the past five decades.
More information: Sallée, JB., Pellichero, V., Akhoudas, C. et al. Summertime increases in upper-ocean stratification and mixed-layer depth. Nature591, 592–598 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03303-x