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Arctic ice loss moves phytoplankton peak up to 50 days early, could “lead to crashes of the food web”

By Joe Romm on March 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

"Arctic ice loss moves phytoplankton peak up to 50 days early, could “lead to crashes of the food web”"

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Fish, shellfish, sea birds, and marine mammals are at risk

Scientists … plotted the yearly spring bloom of phytoplankton””tiny plants at the base of the ocean food chain””in the Arctic Ocean and found the peak timing of the event has been progressing earlier each year for more than a decade. The researchers analyzed satellite data depicting ocean color and phytoplankton production to determine that the spring bloom has come up to 50 days earlier in some areas in that time span.

The earlier Arctic blooms have roughly occurred in areas where ice concentrations have dwindled and created gaps that make early blooms possible, say the researchers, who publish their findings in the March 9 edition of the journal Global Change Biology.

Significant trends toward earlier phytoplankton blooms (blue) were detected in about 11 percent of the area of the Arctic Ocean closest to the North Pole, delayed blooms (red) were evident to the south.

That’s from the news release at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (where I did my Ph.D. thesis research).  The study itself is here:  “Are phytoplankton blooms occurring earlier in the Arctic?” (subs. req’d).

The figure on the right shows, “Significant trends toward earlier phytoplankton blooms (blue) were detected in about 11% of the area of the Arctic Ocean closest to the North Pole, delayed blooms (red) were evident to the south.”

Human activity is greatly disrupting the entire ocean ecosystem, as the scientific literature makes increasingly clear (see “Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”).  The risks are enormous (see Nature: “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton”:  “Microscopic life crucial to the marine food chain is dying out. The consequences could be catastrophic”).

The Washington Post has a good article on this study, which quotes a number of leading experts raising concerns about the disruption these early blooms may cause:

A new report finds that the disappearing ice has apparently triggered another dramatic event – one that could disrupt the entire ecosystem of fish, shellfish, birds and marine mammals that thrive in the harsh northern climate….

“The ice is retreating earlier in the Arctic, and the phytoplankton blooms are also starting earlier,” said study leader Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

“The trend is obvious and significant, and in my mind there is no doubt it is related to the retreat of the ice,” said Kahru, who published the work in the journal Global Change Biology….

The sea ice trend is going to continue (see Arctic Death Spiral 2010: Navy’s oceanographer tells Congress, “the volume of ice as of last September has never been lower”¦in the last several thousand years” and NSIDC director Serreze: “I stand by my previous statements that the Arctic summer sea ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover”).

“A 50-day shift is a big shift,” said plankton researcher Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study. “As the planet warms, the threat is that these changes seen closer to land may spread across the entire Arctic.”

Ecologists worry that the early blooms could unravel the region’s ecosystem and “lead to crashes of the food web,” said William Sydeman, who studies ocean ecology as president of the nonprofit Farallon Institute in Petaluma, Calif.

When phytoplankton explode in population during the blooms, tiny animals called zooplankton – which include krill and other small crustaceans – likewise expand in number as they harvest the phytoplankton. Fish, shellfish and whales feed on the zooplankton, seabirds snatch the fish and shellfish, and polar bears and seals subsist on those species.

The timing of this sequential harvest is programmed into the reproductive cycles of many animals, Sydeman said. “It’s all about when food is available.” So the disrupted phytoplankton blooms could “have cascading effects up the food web all the way to marine mammals.”

Of course, it might all be coincidence.  Let’s keep doing nothing and find out!  What harm could there be in that:

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20 Responses to Arctic ice loss moves phytoplankton peak up to 50 days early, could “lead to crashes of the food web”

  1. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    We’re seeing starving eagles in BC Canada from floods wiping out their food, migrating songbirds arriving earlier in the season and thereby having difficulties finding anything to eat…etc. I am personally noting that the lizards in SE Utah came out early, weeks ago, and am wondering what they’re eating, as there aren’t any insects yet.

    Scary stuff indeed, unless you don’t believe we’re connected to anything and can generate our own food.

  2. BBHY says:

    Holy Cow! Ten days earlier would be quite significant, but 50 days earlier is incredible.

  3. Leif says:

    I recall reading a few years ago about migratory birds in England arriving after the caterpillar hatch was already past its prime. The local hatch is timed by the local temperature. The birds are timed to the seasons so were too late to feed their new hatchlings. Many died. Timing is very important in the animal kingdom. Breakdowns in earth’s life support systems can be very subtle yet very profound. Quite unlike GOBP understanding.

  4. Wonhyo says:

    I’d like to point out some shortcomings in progressive and scientific messaging:

    “The consequences could be catastrophic…”

    “…concerns about the disruption these early blooms may cause…”

    “…[event] that could disrupt the entire ecosystem…”

    “…changes seen closer to land may spread…”

    “…early blooms could unravel…”

    “…could ‘have cascading effects’…”

    Are all of these “coulds” and “mays” really necessary? Is there any practical doubt that these effects WILL occur? When scientists and progressives couch their well-supported predictions in such skeptical terms, it does little to raise concern. After the Titanic hit the iceberg was not the time for everyone to cautiously warn that, “the ship may have hit an iceberg, the iceberg may have caused damage, the damage could be significant, the ship may sink…” (although the Conservatives on board undoubtedly did just that).

    When will scientists (besides James Hansen) stop the quiet whispering and start ringing the alarm bells?

  5. Wonhyo says:

    While my experiences are a small sample, they are consistent with the wider global pattern of earlier springs and later falls. I’ve backpacked in a particular remote area of the Sierras several times in the last ten years. The first two years, the overnight lows were below freezing by late September. The most recent few years, the overnight conditions were summer-like in early October and not quite freezing by mid October.

    In the same area, I’ve seen a dramatic decline in the fish population in the streams.

    When I discuss these changes with acquaintances, they all speak as if they realize changes will occur, but they don’t realize the changes have already started long ago. They’re under the impression that the changes will take place gradually (which may be true, at first), but the clock hasn’t started ticking yet. In reality, the clock started ticking decades ago and we are about to move from the gradual phase of climate change into the non-linear and sudden phase of climate change. People are totally emotionally unprepared for what’s to come. In this state of mind, public policies will be reactive and utterly insufficient.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    Looks to me that early blooming will create more food for sea life. Existing populations may simply move north earlier in the year to take advantage of this additional food source.

  7. Leif says:

    Surely you jest Bob, @ 6? There is still a major amount of snow down on the continents. Just how are the bird populations to know that the ice is breaking further north? What about sea life that may be timed to a different cue? Bears that may have a fixed gustation period? Looks like a bag of worms to me.

  8. Wonhyo says:

    Thoughts that ecosystems will adapt to climate change, or may even benefit from it (as Bob Wallace #6 suggests) are pure fantasy. The pace of this current generation of human driven climate change is much faster than any naturally driven change in hundreds of thousands of years. Species and ecosystems simply do not adapt quickly enough to keep up with such rapid and extreme changes. While some species will undoubtedly survive and thrive, ecosystems as we know them today will collapse.

    As for the idea of “more food for sea life”, that may be true in a very narrow-minded sense, but the overall effect of “more food” will be to throw ecosystems out of balance. All of these isolated benefits of climate change are just that: isolated benefits within a larger framework of climate catastrophe.

    For example, Nature magazine published several articles on the benefits (and limitations of these benefits) of increased CO2 on food growth. It found that increasing CO2, under certain conditions, will, up to a certain point, increase the carbohydrate mass (and thus calories) of potatoes and other crops. That was the one isolated benefit. The caveats? The increase in mass represented an increase in empty carbohydrate calories, with no increase in vitamin content (not too surprising, considering the mechanism of increase). Increasing CO2 concentration helped only up to a certain point, after which it hindered growth. To gain the increased growth, increased water was also required (again, not surprising). If the temperature also increased, the increased growth is negated.

    Thus the very effects of climate change (drought and heat) are the ones that will most directly negate the one potential benefit of increased CO2 concentration. Any isolated increase in “food for sea life” due to the earlier plankton bloom is likely to be accompanied by similar caveats that negate the benefits.

  9. Bob Wallace says:

    Leif, I said nothing about birds and bears. I was talking about “sea life”. Mobile sea life, fish for example, are likely to migrate based on water temperature and food availability.

    Wanhyo, I said nothing about ecosystems benefiting from climate change I simply questioned the statement that “Ecologists worry that the early blooms could unravel the region’s ecosystem”. It seems to me that more food will lead to more fish which will, in turn, lead to more food for organisms which feed on those fish.

    The changing climate will be good in a few places for a few. Objective people will be able to recognize that the changes, while overall disastrous if allowed to proceed unchecked, will in some isolated situations be positive.

  10. Wonhyo says:

    I have heard there is a small, but growing, farming economy in Greenland.

  11. John Mason says:

    Bob #6,

    The danger with this particular climate change (and geologically rapid ones in the past) is that it happens at a rate too fast for ecosystems to have a hope in hell of catching up. Whenever that has happened in the fossil record, mass-extinctions have occurred.

    It’s not about the “endpoint” (Earth has flourished under a Hothouse climate before). It’s about the rate of transition from A to B, and the faster you go, the greater the danger.

    Cheers – John

  12. Dave MacLeod says:

    Sorry for the spamming/self-promotion, but this may be of interest to this blog – an animation showing our current work on climate change impacts on disease in Europe (the asian tiger mosquito)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFqmNgtXOrM

    Cheers – Dave

  13. Steve H says:

    I suppose our hive mind has developed a better interpretation of the study:

    Changes in bloom peak are likely to disrupt well-studied food webs in a manner that is very difficult for many species to adapt to with enough speed to avoid population crashes. Some species might benefit, but these are likely to be generalist species (i.e. “weedy” species) which is disconcerting to many biologists as we already are experiencing significant detriment to our economy because of these types of plants and animals. For example, jellyfish would likely be a species able to take advantage of such blooms, and we are already experiencing record jellyfish populations and subsequent economic impacts.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    To follow Steve H. (#13)

    The Arctic has that weird fresh-water layer on top of the salt-water layer. I have to wonder how the haline layering affects the ecological niches of the life there.

    Continued setbacks through changes in salinity or temperature can knock back even some jellyfish, leading to a very immature ecosystem.

    -with acknowledgment of the work of PR Margalef, an ecologist and information systems theorist, for his astute insights about the maturity of systems.

  15. Leif says:

    Bob @ 9: I have often enjoyed and respecter your many insightful comments here on CP and was a bit taken aback by #6. I assumed a “senior moment”. The whole issue reminds me of the old adage:

    “It is an ill wind indeed that blows no one, [nothing], some good.”

  16. Lou Grinzo says:

    This just in: It’s not nice to screw with Mother Nature.

    Please forgive my snark, but I grow incredibly frustrated with how hard it is to get the basic message across to people: If you pollute the environment at an astonishing pace for centuries it eventually causes gigantic, unforeseen problems.

    Of course, the deniers and delayers latch onto that “unforeseen” part, which is pure BS. When I hear this argument I’ve asked people: Why don’t you encourage your teenage child to get roaring drunk and drive at least a couple of times every week? No one can tell you exactly how he or she will be injured by this behavior. Maybe you child will smash his or her head against a windshield and die in a splatter gray cells and blood. Maybe he or she will be sideswiped by a truck after running a red light and be crushed to death. Perhaps the result will be a flaming wreck that cooks your kid alive. Or maybe you kid will simply lose a couple of limbs and suffer brain damage and have to live a life of rehabilitation and be dependent on you and the government for the rest of his or her life. Not even the world’s top experts on auto safety could tell you exactly how that story will end, so buy your kid a fifth of cheap vodka and hand him or her the keys.

  17. Mike Fretchel says:

    Hey this is my first time writing to this sight but I would like to mention that as a middle school Art teacher as far as i can tell I am just about the only one at my school, except for one very good science teacher, that is mentioning to our students that there is such a thing as climate change going on around them,and that they will inhabit a world quite different than the one they are living in today. I do my best to have my students do many projects that are nature and ecosystem based ,we just finished painting picture of coral reef,with photo’s of bleached out dead reefs next to them.
    So what I am trying to say is if you do not get human beings to understand this tradegy at a elemetary ,Middle school ,Highschool level I am afraid people are going to choose to remain in blissful ignorance .

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ominous Clouds Overhead#1, the problem is precisely that which you allude to. A certain fraction of humanity do not believe that they are connected to the rest of existence. All that matters to them, indeed all that exists, is their ego, their appetites and their drives. Everything else is ‘Other’, and either fear-inducing, irrelevant or stuff to be exploited for the loner’s benefit.As far as they are concerned ‘Every man is an island’.What happened before they lived is irrelevant and what happens after they die of no interest. Other people are a nuisance, threat, or opportunity to exploit for their own satisfaction. The natural world is an affront to their egomania, in its power and majesty, so they seek to be revenged on it by clear-felling forests, polluting rivers, wiping out other species, digging it up etc. A powerful, obsessed and determined fraction of humanity seeks vengeance on existence by destruction, by asserting their ego drive through dominance. ‘You seen one redwood, you’ve seen ‘em all’ as a prime example of the type, Ronald Reagan, said. Until these creatures are removed from global dominance, and the better type of humanity assumes control (talk about ‘Mission Impossible’)our fate is sealed. As Wonhyo alludes to, the rapidly approaching phase of chaotic climate destabilisation and the ensuing panic will actually favour the psychopaths, with their message of fear, anger and domination. Hideous mistakes like geo-engineering will almost certainly be the response of the Kochtopus and the other Rightists.

  19. Richard Black does it again, or rather doesn’t – mention warming that is:

    Polar ice loss quickens, raising seas

    Did he no get the memo last time?