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Scary Study: Plants at Base of Ocean Food Chain Have Declined Up to 40% Due to Warming Seas

08/02/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A study has found that phytoplanktons, the base of the ocean food chain upon which everything from whales to humans depend, have declined by as much as forty percent due to the increase in the temperature of the seas.

The comprehensive study, released by Dalhousie University, has determined that phytoplanktons are impacted by warming.

Microscopic phytoplankton that form the foundation of the marine food chain are declining, according to a new Canadian study that indicates that the ocean's ecosystem and fisheries could be changing.

Researchers at Dalhousie University conducted the first global study of the populations of these microscopic organisms in the past century and found the declines - averaging about 1 per cent a year, and approximately 40 per cent since 1950 - are correlated with increases in sea surface temperatures.

Phytoplankton feed the organisms that, in turn, feed everything from whales to humans. The potential impact on the climate is as troubling. Phytoplankton, which live (and are dying) on the surface of the seas, produce oxygen.

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth... These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures.

As with deforestation, the decline of phytoplankton impacts the vital carbon exchange required to control the presence of greenhouse gases that has tipped over the 350ppm threshold.

It raises the question that if this information had been available for the compromised (by the now debunked charges against climate scientists known as Climategate) Copenhagen conference, would it have made a difference to the outcome?

The release of the study means the rising ocean temperatures effect not only the climate but also threatening the global food chain upon which all species rely. If we do not address the implications and look for ways to reverse this trend, is it possible that the many species already endangered by climate change have expanded to include us all? Can we even take the chance that may be the case?

One can't help but think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which the tiniest organisms destroy invaders ill equipped to defend against their unseen influence. Individual phytoplankton require a microscope to see them. Their influence on us is not microscopic.

This study gives us a global view of the impact of the warming seas. Regardless of the geopolitics of climate change, no matter what anyone chooses to believe or not, the total loss of phytoplankton would be a catastrophic global event. It must be addressed.

More on this topic at THE ENVIRONMENTALIST