Antarctic glaciers melting due to global warming, offsetting effects of global warming

posted in: Posts | 2

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 )
  • Plankton-benefitsSince they are photosynthesizers (not a word, but should be one):

phytoplankton carbon sink

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: 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:

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:






2 Responses

  1. aarpbrian

    Ok, I got you. The accidental increase in phytoplankton and its thriving in these polynya’s is good, helps reduce carbon, etc. But what about rising water levels if the melt continues? Or loss of habitat and feeding for animals like polar bears?

    • Yes, I mentioned I’d bum you out in future posts with more info on all that! This little reaction is likely only going to be good for some of our cold-weather friends. P.S.: so happy to see you are checking out the blog!

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