Plankton Populations Reflect Changes of Warming Oceans

Planktonic foraminifera assemblage from Caribbean sediments that provide an accurate picture of the species community before human influence. Each shell is less than one millimeter in size. (Michal Kucera)

Plankton Haven’t Been the Same Since the Industrial Revolution

by Maddie Burakoff

As scientists scramble to figure out how warming ocean temperatures will affect marine ecosystems across the globe—from bleaching coral reefs to altered migration routes—one of the sea’s most ubiquitous organisms is helping researchers measure the changes that have already occurred. Centuries of fossil records and live-capture data show that some marine plankton populations reflect a clear change in response to human industrialization and the warming oceans that have come with it.

Researchers found distinct differences between communities of planktonic foraminifera—tiny single-celled creatures that float in ocean waters—from before and after the start of the industrial era about 170 years ago, according to a study published this week in Nature. The ratio of plankton species in these communities shifted in proportion to changes in sea temperature, indicating that ocean warming has deeply altered these populations and their wider marine ecosystems.

While the idea that climate change affects marine life isn’t new, the plankton study incorporates an unusually complete data set that spans the globe and cuts deep into past centuries to reaffirm humanity’s impact on the oceans.

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  1. Cocolithospores burying CO2 as Calcium Carbonate into sediments and reefs would have eventually killed all plant life if making had not begun returning CO2 into the atmosphere.

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