Climate Change Will Soon Change The Colour of Our Oceans. Here's How

05 February, 2019, 14:24 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • Credit NASA Earth Observatory

"The model suggests the changes won't appear huge to the naked eye, and the ocean will still look like it has blue regions in the subtropics and greener regions near the equator and poles", says lead author Stephanie Dutkiewicz, a principal research scientist at MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, in a statement. "Phytoplankton are at the base, and if the base changes, it endangers everything else along the food web, going far enough to the polar bears or tuna or just about anything that you want to eat or love to see in pictures". Scientists have been constantly recording the ocean's colors via satellite images since the 1990s as a way to measure the amount of chlorophyll, and by extension, phytoplankton in the water.

According to MIT, climate change is now affecting the phytoplankton in our oceans. Greener regions, including waters near the poles, may turn deeper green, as warmer temperatures encourage more diverse phytoplankton to grow. Warmer waters will bring more phytoplankton blooms, causing the waters to appear a deeper green than ever before.

Dutkiewicz and her team built a climate model that projects changes to the oceans, including their optical properties, throughout the century. But it's been hard to detect and measure these changes, says Dutkiewicz, partly because there's so much variability in the ocean from year to year.

Another difference from previous studies is that this time, the researchers are looking exclusively at satellite measurements of reflected light from the phytoplankton. They consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

The ocean looks blue or green to us because of a combination of how sunlight interacts with water molecules and with whatever else lives in that water.

Phytoplankton are primary producers of energy: Using chlorophyll, they convert sunlight into energy, thus feeding an entire food chain above them.

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"More of the ocean is going to show a change in colour over the next few decades than we would see in chlorophyll, the changing colour is going to be more of a warning signal". For the study, they cranked up the global temperature in the model by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 and found blue and green wavelengths responded the fastest.

They believe it will be 30-40 years before they can say for certain that climate change is having an impact on chlorophyll.

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". "But you can see a significant, climate-related shift in some of these wavebands, in the signal being sent out to the satellites".

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 color change won't be obvious to human onlookers, but spectral analysis by satellite cameras could help scientists use color shifts as a proxy for the development of climate change.

"It could be potentially quite serious", Dutkiewicz added of the change in color in the oceans. "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".


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