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Climate Impacts the 'Dance of the Plankton'

Oct 01, 2014 12:25 PM EDT

NASA and its satellites have been spying on the Earth's plankton for some time now, and experts can now say with some certainty that climate change its truly impacting the predator-prey "dance" of these all-important organisms.

Phytoplankton are arguably some of the most important plant-like organisms in the world, filling the Earth's oceans, producing half the planet's oxygen, and serving as a significant carbon dioxide sink to combat climate change.

However, new data from NASA satellites has led researchers to conclude that climate change impacts how these organisms interact with thier ecosystems as well.

Unlike the plant ecosystems on land, the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean is always reflected in the abundance of organisms that eat phytoplankton, creating a perpetual shift in populations between predators and prey - that's what researcher Mike Behrenfeld, a phytoplankton ecologist at Oregon State University, calls the "Dance of the Plankton."

According to a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change, that dance is becoming very visible thanks to the effects climate change is having on the various ecosystems phytoplankton are involved in.

"The continuous year-in and year-out measurements provided by NASA's ocean color satellites have dramatically changed our understanding of phytoplankton dynamics on the Earth," Behrenfeld explained in a statement. "What we now see is a closely linked system of phytoplankton cell division and consumption lying at the heart of the plant's annual cycle."

According to the study, the changes are not necessarily bad. They are more just a changing of pace, meaning predator decline may result in a massive bloom in phytoplankton population in some parts of the ocean, or increased carbon levels may help plankton reproduce and divide at a higher rate.

However, "phytoplankton are rubber-banded to their predators," Behrenfeld said. "As long as the phytoplankton are accelerating in their division rate, they'll stay ahead. As soon as they slow down, the predators [of] phytoplankton will quickly catch up, stop the bloom by consuming the phytoplankton, and then begin decreasing the numbers of phytoplankton."

"The environmental conditions that start and then sustain phytoplankton blooms are, in many cases, the same environmental factors that are impacted by climate change," he added. "Understanding the plankton ecosystem and how it responds to variability is very important for preparing and looking forward to how Earth's system changes."

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