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Shifting spring: Arctic plankton blooming up to 50 days earlier now

A light micrograph of plankton including water fleas (family Daphniidae)
A light micrograph of plankton including water fleas (family Daphniidae) (Getty Images/oxford Scientific)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 6:39 PM

Climate researchers have long warned that the Arctic is particularly vulnerable to global warming. The dramatic shrinking of sea ice in areas circling the North Pole highlights those concerns.

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A new report finds that the disappearing ice has apparently triggered another dramatic event - one that could disrupt the entire ecosystem of fish, shellfish, birds, and marine mammals that thrive in the harsh northern climate.

Each summer, an explosion of tiny ocean-dwelling plants and algae, called phytoplankton, anchors the Arctic food web.

But these vital annual blooms of phytoplankton are now peaking up to 50 days earlier than they did just 14 years ago, satellite data show.

"The ice is retreating earlier in the Arctic, and the phytoplankton blooms are also starting earlier," said study leader Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Drawing on observations from three American and European climate satellites, Kahru and his international team studied worldwide phytoplankton blooms from 1997 through 2009. The satellites can spot the blooms by their color, as billions of the tiny organisms turn huge swaths of the ocean green for a week or two.

The blooms peaked earlier and earlier in 11 percent of the areas where Kahru's team was able to collect good data. Kahru said the impacted zones cover roughly 1 million square kilometers, including portions of the Foxe Basin and the Baffin Sea, which belong to Canada, and the Kara Sea north of Russia.

In the late 1990s, phytoplankton blooms in these areas hit their peak in September, only after a summer's worth of relative warmth had melted the edges of the polar ice cap. But by 2009 the blooms' peaks had shifted to early July.

"The trend is obvious and significant, and in my mind there is no doubt it is related to the retreat of the ice," said Kahru, who published the work in the journal Global Change Biology.

"A 50-day shift is a big shift," said plankton researcher Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study. "As the planet warms, the threat is that these changes seen closer to land may spread across the entire Arctic."

Ecologists worry that the early blooms could unravel the region's ecosystem and "lead to crashes of the food web," said William Sydeman, who studies ocean ecology as president of the nonprofit Farallon Institute in Petaluma, Calif.

When phytoplankton explode in population during the blooms, tiny animals called zooplankton - which include krill and other small crustaceans - likewise expand in number as they harvest the phytoplankton. Fish, shellfish and whales feed on the zooplankton, seabirds snatch the fish and shellfish, and polar bears and seals subsist on those species.


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