Study Reveals the Ocean will Shift Color by End of 21st Century

Credit NASA Earth Observatory

Half the world's oceans will change colour as global warming plays havoc with the spread of microscopic marine algae, according to a new study.

Phytoplankton are small, microscopic plants that float through the water column, due to their ability to absorb and reflect light, communities of phytoplankton affect the color of the ocean.

Climate change could cause more than 50 percent of Earth's oceans to change color by the end of the 21 century, according to a newly published study.

Ocean regions with high concentrations of phytoplankton have shades of blue-green - now more regularly seen in warmer, tropical climates.

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. By contrast, barren regions of open ocean appear as deep blue from space. Organisms in the water tend to change this overall color, as they absorb and reflect different wavelenghts of light. Water molecules absorb nearly all of the light hitting it, except for the blue part of the spectrum. "So it's a complicated process, how light is reflected back out of the ocean to give it its color". Using this data, they estimated the levels of chlorophyll in the oceans and tried to determine how they were affected by climate change and weather phenomena like El Niño or La Niña events.

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Dutkiewicz said, "Sunlight will come into the ocean, and anything that's in the ocean will absorb it, like chlorophyll".

Rather than hoping to derived estimates of chlorophyll, the group pondered whether they could see a reasonable flag of environmental change's impact on phytoplankton by taking a gander at satellite estimations of reflected light alone.

Some might argue the color of climate change is red - the color that most often marks dramatic temperature increases on climate maps.

"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 color of the ocean surface", University of Southampton's Dr. Anna Hickman, co-author of the research, told the Guardian.

They started with a computer model used previously to predict phytoplankton changes caused by rising temperatures and ocean acidification.

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The ocean is rich in diverse shades of blue and green.

"Other things will absorb or scatter it, like something with a hard shell". Under the assumption that climate change will continue at its expected rate throughout the 21st century, they then cranked up the ocean temperatures in their model by three degrees Celsius, which is what most scientists predict will happen under a scenario in which there's relatively no action taken to reduce greenhouse gases.

As for Boston, she doesn't expect that we'll see much color change in the harbor itself - it's too full of sediment and runoff for the phytoplankton to make much of a color difference. "But the change in the colour of the ocean will be one of early warning signals that we really have changed our planet".

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

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