Research shows how carbon-filled oceans affect a tiny but important organism | 8/6/2018 | Staff
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They're impossible to see with the naked eye. They're difficult to pronounce.

But coccolithophores, a single-celled plankton, have an outsized effect on oceans due to their sheer quantity—their blooms are visible from space—and because of the fundamental role they play in food chains and the carbon cycle. Small fish and zooplankton feast on them, and they remove huge amounts of carbon from the ocean.

Quarter - Carbon - Dioxide - Atmosphere - Oceans

A quarter of the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere ends up in oceans, where it reacts chemically and makes the water more acidic. This disrupts a variety of marine life, inhibiting some species—including corals, clams and other mollusks—from forming shells and skeletons. So as the threat of ocean acidification, which has emerged as a companion to climate change, looms large, scientists have become concerned that increasing acidification will jeopardize the health of these crucial carbon-absorbing creatures and add another lifeform to the list of species threatened by pollution.

But research published in Nature Communications uncovered good news for coastal varieties of the plankton—those changes in ocean chemistry don't appear to bother them.

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"We found that they were very resilient to high levels of carbon dioxide," said Robert Eagle, author of the paper and UCLA assistant professor who works at the intersection of biology, oceanography and climate science. Eagle is part of growing contingent of scientists investigating coccolithophores because of the role they play in the carbon cycle and ecosystems. "In some cases, you find the plankton do much better. They grow faster."

To test the resilience of the coccolithophores, scientists took live samples and put them in tanks of ocean water. They added extra carbon dioxide to the water—levels matching projections of how much could be in the ocean by the middle or end of the century. The plankton appeared to be utilizing the extra carbon dioxide in the...
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