The impact of climate change has made the future of plankton unique to the Southern Ocean uncertain, an Australian study has found.
The research, published by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) on Thursday, revealed that single-celled phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean, which plays a key role in reducing atmospheric carbon, face extinction.
Stacy Deppeler, a PhD student at IMAS, found that a clear trend of how the phytoplankton is affected by global warming will not be available for decades, by which point it may be too late to save the plankton.
“While a fundamental part of the ecosystem is changing in ways that could have global implications, there’s uncertainty about exactly what the changes and their impact will be,” Deppeler said in a media release on Thursday.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to identify clear trends until around 2050, by which time some big changes in phytoplankton communities will probably already have occurred and it will to be too late to consider mitigating them.
“Phytoplankton are important because all marine life in the Southern Ocean rely on them ultimately as a food source.”
Deppeler said that the extinction of the phytoplankton would have significant consequences for the Southern Ocean habitat.
“They draw down carbon as they photosynthesize, and capture it in the deep ocean when they sink to the seafloor. The level of atmospheric carbon would be around 50 percent higher without the uptake provided by Southern Ocean phytoplankton,” she said.
“Changes to phytoplankton communities therefore could have significant implications for our environment and climate.
“Changes in the ability of phytoplankton to photosynthesize and grow, or changes in the structure of the phytoplankton community from large cells that contain a lot of carbon to smaller cells that don’t have so much, will affect the amount of carbon that sinks into the deep ocean.
“But understanding exactly what’s happening is difficult due to the complexity of the stressors affecting phytoplankton, the size and regional diversity of the Southern Ocean, and the logistical challenges of conducting research there.
“While the changes in phytoplankton might happen quite quickly they’ll take a very long time to reverse.”