Chilling news out of Antarctica last week: melting glaciers create polynyas (patches of open water) where phytoplankton appears to be thriving. So, it seems science is telling us that melting glaciers are a good thing. Giving so much credit to the polynyas sound a little Pollyanna? Maybe. But, this is another story proving we don’t have a clue how nature might react to our unnatural bombardment of it. And sometimes nature reminds us how resilient it is.
Here’s where we need to discuss a little science – remember, my goal is to dumb this down enough so I can grasp it – you’ll be fine! It all starts with phytoplankton – and that is not an understatement. Phytoplankton — name derived from the Greek – phyto (plant); plankton (drifter), and sometimes prone to showing off in blue as seen in the above photo — are tiny little critters with big responsibilities:
- They are the primary producers in our oceans, feeding small organisms like krill, that then feed many other organisms including the largest creature ever to roam the earth (check it out from the amazing National Geographic here )
- Since they are photosynthesizers (not a word, but should be one):
- They generate about half the atmosphere’s oxygen (as much per year as all land plants combined);
- They take up carbon and when they die and sink, they bring that carbon along with them – helping make the oceans the earth’s largest carbon sink; (about 93% of our carbon dioxide is stored in algae, vegetation and coral in our oceans).
These tiny little critters float around near the surface of the water, either powered by the current or or the use of small flagella (little tails), capturing sunlight to power photosynthesis.
Phytoplankton rely on nutrients in the water in order to photosynthesize. One of these nutrients is iron. Iron is deposited into our oceans, normally from land mass dust or runoff from freshwater sources.
This new study, (accessed at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015JC010888/full) and published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, suggests that the increase in glacial melt is producing an increase in iron (which is stored up in the old glaciers from the bedrock it scraped at formation), which is creating a nutrient-rich environment in which phytoplankton can thrive.
Here is a wonderful video summing this up from one of the lead scientists of the study: http://news.agu.org/press-release/melting-glaciers-feed-antarctic-food-chain/
This is great news for some of Antarctica’s threatened species including several species of penguins, whales and birds, and also suggests that these polynyas will become major contributors to the oceans’ carbon sink.
But, as far as we know, the rest of the oceans will only see detrimental effects from climate change (all of which I’ll likely bum you out with in later posts).
For now, let’s bask in this one small step for man, made possible by nature – and watch Adelie Penguins (one species at risk that may benefit from all this) heading out for lunch: http://www.arkive.org/adelie-penguin/pygoscelis-adeliae/video-02.html.