Global warming is changing the color of the oceans

Rising temperatures to make oceans bluer and greener

A new study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that more than half of the world's oceans will shift color by the year 2100, due to changes in the types and location of phytoplankton.

Hickman said: "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]". "So that's where we should be looking in satellite measurements, for a real signal of change".

In one of the starkest forecasts about climate change so far, MIT researchers have warned in Nature Communications that skewed ocean temperatures are causing significant change to the tiny creatures known as phytoplankton.

"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. Patches of ocean with a lot of algae appear greenish, for instance, while areas with fewer phytoplankton appear a deeper blue.

An MIT study is reporting that by the end of the 21st century, 50 percent of the world's ocean, will be a different color.

Importantly, she said, the shift in reflectance of blue/green light appeared to give an earlier indication of changes to phytoplankton than estimates of the amount of chlorophyll present, a measure now used to monitor phytoplankton levels. Some regions that are greener today, such as near the poles, may turn even deeper green, as warmer temperatures brew up larger blooms of more diverse phytoplankton. But Dutkiewicz says chlorophyll doesn't necessarily have reflect the sensitive signal of climate change.

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As well as changes in the blue of the oceans, we are also likely to see changes in the green. "If they were to magically change - or if we were to kill them off completely - there would be a lot of carbon coming out of the ocean and back into the atmosphere, and creating more problems that we have now". 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.

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. "But they're important because they tell us a lot about what's changing in the ocean".

Previous research has shown that with warming, the oceans will see a reduction in phytoplankton in many places.

Scientists have been measuring the color of the world's oceans since the late 1990s, using these measurements to determine chlorophyll levels and as such, those of phytoplankton. For the study, they cranked up the global temperature in the model by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 and found blue and green wavelengths responded the fastest.

According to their model, climate change is already changing the makeup of phytoplankton, and by extension, the color of the oceans.

"It could be potentially quite serious", Dutkiewicz added. Different types of phytoplankton absorb light differently, and if climate change shifts one community of phytoplankton to another, that will also change the types of food webs they can support.

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