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Gaia In Action? Increase In CO2 May Lessen Effects Of Global Warming

Turns out that increased amounts of phytoplankton could actually help the planet stave off the effects of global warming. That is the consensus of a team of NASA scientists, according to a newly published report, which finds that a growing body of microscopic plants may eventually provide the Arctic ice with additional time.

NASA researchers say microscopic plants could serve as a solution to increasingly high rates of CO2, one of the key contributors to global warming. The team of scientists suggest that the large quantities of phytoplankton, recently discovered growing under sea ice, could pull in large amounts of the greenhouse gas, possibly curtailing any potential consequences of global warming.

A rare cloud-free satellite image of the Chukchi Sea, Alaska to the right and Russia to the left, just north of the Bering Strait shows coastal areas where phytoplankton bloom (green) when sea ice melts in summer. (Credit: NASA)

The report finds  that the microscopic plants, commonly known as phytoplankton, are actively growing under the thinning Arctic ice, leading scientists to say that the phytoplankton growth in the Arctic may now be richer than any other ocean region on Earth. The large patch of phytoplankton was  previously unknown to scientists and it remains unclear whether the bloom existed before the ice began to thin, or it is simply the result of the thinning ice.

“Consequently, current estimates of pan-Arctic primary productivity assume that the growth and biomass of phytoplankton, free-floating single-celled photosynthetic organisms at the base of the marine food web, are negligible in waters beneath ice because of insufficient light,” the scientists explained in the report published Friday.

The team said the finding was highly unexpected and it will likely warrant further research in the coming months and years. The team noted that large swaths of Phytoplankton  have often bloomed in the Arctic, but not to this extent. The team of scientists noted that the blooms have been observed to peak as many as 50 days earlier than they did a dozen years ago, a development that could have implications for the larger food web, scientists say.

“My concern is that if phytoplankton continue to develop and grow earlier and earlier in the year, it is going to become increasingly difficult for those animals that time their life cycle to be in the Arctic… to be there at the right time of year,” said Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University, leader of the mission and lead author of the new study.

“If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible,” he added. “This discovery was a complete surprise.”

Known formally as “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment,” or ICESCAPE, mission scientists went on two expeditions in June-July of 2010 and 2011. The mission is the latest backed by NASA, which has increasingly focused on studying the effects of global warming and climate change.

The mission, funded in part by NASA, combines field-based observations of Arctic Ocean biology and biogeochemistry with state-of-the-art satellite remote sensing and numerical modeling activities. Together, these three approaches afford the potential to substantially broaden an understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems, say researchers.

ICESCAPE is thought to add critical new insights into the optical properties of the sea ice and upper ocean as well as into rates of biogeochemical transformations within the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles. Moreover, it will add significantly to the currently sparse datasets that are sorely needed to develop improved algorithms for detecting ecosystem changes in both the sea ice and the open ocean and for developing improved models.

The plants are thriving in part because the Arctic sea ice has been thinning for years, a result of global climate change, Arrigo said. Melted ice water that pools atop the thin ice sheet make it easier for sunlight to penetrate into the water, stimulating the growth of the phytoplankton. In the Chukchi Sea, essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphates and trace elements are abundant for the rapidly multiplying plants, Mr. Arrigo said.

While the results of the study are likely alarming for climate scientists, the team noted that the presence of the plants could ultimately lead to a thriving fishing industry and additional benefits. Various species of phytoplankton form the crucial diet for many marine organisms and some whales. They make up the base of the entire Arctic food chain, supporting fish, walrus, seabirds, which feed the sparse populations in the region.

The startling findings, made last July during a cruise of the NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE research project, overturn biological expectations about what might be driving the frigid ecosystem that surrounds the disintegrating ice pack every spring, say researchers. The results of the study could further complicate the international response to the threat poised by global warming, which has divided both the scientific community and the policy makers worldwide.

The Capital Column, 9 June 2012