Climate change will dramatically alter colour of Earth's oceans

Credit CC0 Public Domain

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Hickman and colleagues from the United Kingdom and U.S. report how they came to their conclusions by using a computer model that predicts how factors such as temperature, ocean currents and ocean acidity affects the growth and types of phytoplankton in the water, as well as levels of other coloured organic matter and detritus. The researchers also simulated the way phytoplankton absorb and reflect light, and how the ocean's color changes as global warming affects the makeup of phytoplankton communities.

"We're not going to suddenly go from having a blue ocean to a red ocean or something like that, but there will be very, very subtle changes", says Dutkiewicz, a principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Global Change Science. "That basic pattern will still be there".

"In the same way that plants on land are green, phytoplankton are green as well, so the amount and different types of phytoplankton affect the colour of the ocean surface", said Dr Anna Hickman, co-author of the research from the school of ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton.

Dutkiewicz's co-authors include Oliver Jahn of MIT, Anna Hickman of the University of Southhampton, Stephanie Henson of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, Claudie Beaulieu of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Erwan Monier, former principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Global Change Science, and now assistant professor at the University of California at Davis, in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

The shifting colors of the ocean is tied to the organisms that live in the surface of the water. Likewise, the more abundant they are, the less blue the water will be.

The ocean's waters show the colour they do depending on the light they reflect: Large swaths of water containing just water molecules reflect blue.

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

The more phytoplankton in the water, the less blue the seas will appear, and the more likely they will be to have a greenish colour.

Since the late 1990s, satellites have taken continuous measurements of the ocean's color.

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In the past, scientists have used satellite measurements of chlorophyll, a light-harvesting pigment found in phytoplankton, to try and understand the impact of climate change. By looking at these measurements, the level of cholorophyll can be determined, which could be due to global warming or weather-related phenomena, such as an El Niño or La Niña, Dutkiewicz said. This model takes information about phytoplankton, such as what they consume and how they grow, and incorporates this information into a physical model that simulates the ocean's currents and mixing.

"Other things will absorb or scatter it, like something with a hard shell". That gets reflected back out, giving it its deep blue color.

Using a model that tracks the movements of these organisms, the researchers made predictions about the ocean's color as environmental conditions change in the future.

The model that predicted the major colour change was based on the business-as-usual scenario whereby global average temperatures would be three degrees Celsius warmer in 2100 than they are today if no serious climate action is taken.

"More of the ocean is going to show a change in colour over the next few decades than we would see in chlorophyll, the changing colour is going to be more of a warning signal".

"Chlorophyll is changing, but you can't really see it because of its incredible natural variability", Dutkiewicz says. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that, while small, exist in huge numbers in large bodies of water, and they also play a role in what color our oceans are. "By the end of the century, our blue planet may look visibly altered", wrote Jennifer Chu in the press release.

"Without them there wouldn't be any life in the ocean", says MIT's Stephanie Dutkiewicz, lead author on the new study.

"It could be potentially quite serious", Dutkiewicz added.


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