50-Day-Early Arctic Phytoplankton Blooms Could Change Marine Food Cycles

phytoplankton bloom photo

Photo via NASA Goddard

Phytoplankton are the foundation of the marine food chain, and the tiny organisms are considered the "fuel of the ocean." But like everything else in the sea, phytoplankton are wrestling with a changing climate and chemical make-up of the ocean. Not only do numbers seem to be declining, but researchers have also noted that their spring bloom is coming a full 50 days earlier -- mainly in areas where ice has melted sooner than normal and it is possible for the blooms to happen. This early flourishing could cause untold impacts on the rest of the ocean life that depends on the plants. Science Daily reports that scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, along with colleagues in Portugal and Mexico, tracked the annual blooms from 1997 to 2010 and noted the very early emergence.

The blooms -- lasting only one to two weeks each spring -- cause a huge influx of carbon into the ocean and the microscopic plants become food for zooplankton, which then become food for fish and on up the food chain. But if phytoplankton blooms are happening earlier, will the rest of the food chain keep up with the shift in schedules? That's what remains unclear to researchers.

"The trend towards earlier phytoplankton blooms can expand into other areas of the Arctic Ocean and impact the whole food chain," say the scientists.

In 2009 we noted that new phytoplankton blooms were occurring in the Antarctic as ice melted, and the blooms acted as natural carbon sinks. It was a bittersweet new event -- a new carbon sink is almost always considered a good thing, and phytoplankton is one of the most important marine resources we have for sequestering carbon. However, the event in the north is greeted with far more trepidation.

We've yet to see if the other natural systems in the ocean will keep schedule with the early blooms, or if animals will miss the overlap of plentiful food with reproduction schedules.

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More on Plankton
Plankton in Peril as Warming Oceans Causes Steady Population Decline
New Study Shows Eukaryotic Phytoplankton Accounts for Almost 50% of Ocean's Carbon Fixation
Phytoplankton on the Decline: The "Fuel" for Ocean Ecosystems May Be Dying Out

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