Study Reveals the Ocean Will Shift Color This Century

Study Reveals the Ocean Will Shift Color This Century

The changes won't be dramatic, in fact, they likely won't be visible to the naked eye, but it suggests that the hue of the ocean could be an important marker for scientists watching to see how climate change will affect our seas.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Hickman and colleagues from the United Kingdom and U.S. report how they came to their conclusions by using a computer model that predicts how factors such as temperature, ocean currents and ocean acidity affects the growth and types of phytoplankton in the water, as well as levels of other coloured organic matter and detritus.

"There will be a noticeable difference in the color of 50 percent of the ocean by the end of the 21st century", Dutkiewicz said in a statement.

Dutkiewicz says ocean warming is already changing the types of phytoplankton and where they live.

"The basic pattern will still be there", said Research Scientist Stephanie Dutkiewicz in a press release from MIT. They're able to do this because water absorbs most sunlight with the exception of blue parts of the spectrum, which is reflected back out. The report stated so through a simulation model on the growth and interaction of different species of phytoplankton, or algae and how due to the rise in temperatures globally, the mix of these species would change.

This will happen because some species of phytoplankton will respond well to a warmer environment and will create larger blooms of more diverse marine organisms. However, in an important twist to previous studies, they also explored how such changes would affect the absorption and reflection of light at the ocean surface. She says that current methods for monitoring phytoplankton provide information about local or regional changes but this new method, which uses satellite data, may offer a clearer, better picture of ocean change. "We are interested in phytoplankton because they are tiny marine plants, they contribute about half of global photosynthesis, they are the base of the marine food web". As a result, more green light is reflected back out of the ocean, giving algae-rich regions a greenish hue.

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In total, climate change will alter at least 30 percent of the ocean's color by 2100 and perhaps more than 60 percent, the researchers say. Significant swings in chlorophyll may be due to global warming, but it could also be due to "natural variability" such as cyclical increases in chlorophyll from natural weather-related events such as El Niño or La Niña.

It was also programmed to estimate the specific wavelengths of light that are absorbed and reflected by the ocean, taking into consideration the amount and type of organisms in a given region.

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.

Another difference from previous studies is that this time, the researchers are looking exclusively at satellite measurements of reflected light from the phytoplankton.

While these changes may seem small, scientists say that they are deep and long-lasting. "But the change in the colour of the ocean will be one of early warning signals that we really have changed our planet".

"What we've shown is that the colour in the blue-green range is going to show that signal of change sooner, in some places in maybe the next decade", said Dr Dutkiewicz. By the end of the century, our blue planet may look visibly altered.

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