Seas will change colour as climate heats up

Seas will change colour as climate heats up

Seas will change colour as climate heats up

Researchers from MIT developed a model to simulate the growth and interaction of different types of phytoplankton and algae, observing how changing temperatures of the ocean over the coming decades will influence the mixing of those species.

In the interim, Dutkiewicz said, paying close attention to changes in the oceans' colour can offer the first clues of the changes that are underway. If there are any organisms in the ocean, they can absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light, depending on their individual properties. They are also key to other animals' survival.

Hickman said: "Crudely speaking, where the water is now quite blue because the phytoplankton [have a] relatively low biomass, you are going to see the water getting more blue, and where the ocean is relatively more green because the biomass is higher, you are going to see [it] getting [greener]".

Phytoplankton contain chlorophyll, which absorbs blue portions of sunlight and reflects the green, giving their waters a greenish hue.

The presence of phytoplankton in waters typically indicates the health of water: When there is just enough of it, life thrives and the water takes on the "healthy" green colour.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that this would provide an early warning of wider changes to ocean ecosystems caused by climate change.

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According to MIT, climate change is now affecting the phytoplankton in our oceans.

"Other things will absorb or scatter it, like something with a hard shell".

The more phytoplankton there are in the water, the greener the colour, the fewer there are the bluer the colour. The resulting model can be fed with various values of inputs, primarily global temperatures.

"Chlorophyll is changing, but you can't really see it because of its incredible natural variability", Dutkiewicz says.

For Mr. Strutton, "What this study has shown is that although the greenness of the oceans, the amount of chlorophyll might only be changing by small amounts, what's important is that the type of phytoplankton might be changing more dramatically".

Since the late 1990s, satellites have been taking continuous measurements of the ocean's colour to determine the amount of chlorophyll-and, in turn, phytoplankton-in an oceanic region. "But you can see a significant, climate-related shift in some of these wavebands, in the signal being sent out to the satellites".

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In the past, scientists have used satellite measurements of chlorophyll, a light-harvesting pigment found in phytoplankton, to try and understand the impact of climate change.

Importantly, she said, the shift in reflectance of blue/green light appeared to give an earlier indication of changes to phytoplankton than estimates of the amount of chlorophyll present, a measure now used to monitor phytoplankton levels.

Now, MIT is saying the changes in these organisms will be so extreme that they would cause a change in surface color of the oceans by the end of the 21st century. The greens and blues of the sea will become greener and bluer. In fact, the process is well underway already.

"There will be a noticeable difference in the colour of 50 percent of the ocean by the end of the 21st century", Dr Dutkiewicz said. "Different types of phytoplankton absorb light differently, and if climate change shifts one community of phytoplankton to another, that will also change the types of food webs they can support", Dutkiewicz added.

The pale blue dot that we inhabit could potentially become much more green, but in the wrong place.

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