Global warming is changing the color of the oceans

06 February, 2019, 12:39 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Changes in algae will turn some seas a more brilliant blue

Rather than create a computer model from scratch, the team modified an existing tool that had been used to predict phytoplankton population changes as a result of rising temperatures and ocean acidification.

Phytoplankton absorb and reflect different wavelengths of sunlight, which appear as different colors.

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.

But as warm, subtropical waters get warmer, populations of phytoplankton are projected to decrease, changing the waters to more blue colors.

By the year 2100, they say more than 50 percent of our oceans will have shifted in color, and those regions in the subtropics and near the equator and poles will have brighter blues and deeper greens most visible through satellite images of the Earth.

"The basic pattern will still be there", said Research Scientist Stephanie Dutkiewicz in a press release from MIT. "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". Dutkiewicz is 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. She chose to try a new method: looking a subtle shifts in water color. So water with more phytoplankton has a greenish hue. As such, the ocean appears blue. As a result, the simulation could show changes to the light being absorbed and reflected to the ocean based on the presence of phytoplankton.

Dr Anna Hickman, from the University of Southampton, added: 'Crudely speaking, where the water is now quite blue because the phytoplankton [have a] relatively low biomass, you are going to see the water getting more blue, and where the ocean is relatively more green because the biomass is higher, you are going to see [it] getting [greener]'.

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Satellites have been taking continuous measurements of the ocean's color since the late 1990s, the researchers noted. "Everything in the ocean requires phytoplankton to exist".

"An El Niño or La Niña event will throw up a very large change in chlorophyll because it's changing the amount of nutrients that are coming into the system", Dutkiewicz says.

Instead of looking to derived estimates of chlorophyll, the team wondered whether they could see a clear signal of climate change's effect on phytoplankton by looking at satellite measurements of reflected light alone. Climate change will fuel the blooming of some phytoplankton in some areas, while reducing it in other spots, leading to subtle changes in the ocean's appearance.

"Sunlight will come into the ocean, and anything that's in the ocean will absorb it, like chlorophyll", Dutkiewicz says. These organisms are responsible for much of the colour we see.

When they increased the global temperatures by up to 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, they found that wavelengths of light in the blue or green wave band responded the fastest. 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. "But the change in the colour of the ocean will be one of early warning signals that we really have changed our planet".

As well as changes in the blue of the oceans, we are also likely to see changes in the green.

According to Dr Dutkiewicz, "By the end of 21 century, a difference in the color by 50% would be noticed". "It could be potentially quite serious".

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