Different types of planktons zoomed

As Hurricanes Irma and Harvey cleared along the Atlantic this summer, they were ensued by a huge undercurrent of phytoplankton. Although the two storms insisted countless lives and caused billions of dollars in damage, there was at smallest one surprising benefit: Phytoplankton—single-celled organisms like plants and bacteria that populate the surface of the ocean—spread behind them.

For decades, researchers have guided to phytoplankton as one of the planet’s most important sources. They form the basis of the marine food chain and contribute half the ocean’s oxygen (while trees, shrubs, and grasses provide the other half). Hurricanes shake the ocean, bringing up nutrients like nitrogen, phosphate, and iron from the depths of the ocean and including them to the surface levels where plankton lives. In turn, the phytoplankton bloom and spread, and marine life arise with it.

But even as hurricanes are increasing and intensifying, scientists say that phytoplankton is still in serious threat of dying out.

“Over the next 100 years, the climate will warm as greenhouses gases increase in our atmosphere,” says Andrew Barton, oceanographer and partner research scholar at Princeton University. As the climate warms, Barton says, so will the oceans—bad news for phytoplankton, since warm waters include less oxygen, and therefore less phytoplankton, than cooler areas. Now, slowly warming ocean waters have ruined off phytoplankton globally by a monstrous 40 percent since 1950.

Though it’s not just phytoplankton loss that’s bothering scientists. Because phytoplankton grows better in cooler waters, these organisms emigrate to cooler patches of the ocean when other parts fit extremely warm. In 2015, Barton and a team of fellow oceanographers tracked environmental changes like temperature and salinity to approximate where phytoplankton will pass over the course of the next era. They foretell that phytoplankton onward the North Atlantic shoreline will transfer near cooler waters off the seashore of Greenland, reducing the food source for fish and other oceanic life.

“They’re excessively important,” Barton says of phytoplankton. “They’re at the right bottom of the food chain, and what happens at the base influences, everybody.”

That includes humans. Because the phytoplankton movement would induce nautical life to go with it (or die, should organisms break to adjust instantly enough to the change in their circumstances), that has the potential to affect fisheries and other economies in the coastal areas. But higher worrisome, loss of phytoplankton would indicate more carbon dioxide ensnared in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Phytoplankton plays an integral role in moderating the Earth’s climate. Carbon dioxide emissions—like the kind that cars produce—are absorbed by phytoplankton on the ocean facade. “The plankton regulates the carbon dioxide like a tree,” Barton states, “and when they rot, they sink to the ground of the ocean and that carbon is barred away for thousands of years. If not for phytoplankton, the carbon dioxide [in the atmosphere] would be more leading, and the climate would be hotter.”

But climate change doesn’t just destroy phytoplankton and cause them to relocate. Hurricanes like Irma and Harvey, along with rising temperatures, also ascertain which kinds of a phytoplankton blossom. And not all phytoplankton is useful to humans or oceanic life.

Differences in ocean circulation and water temperature both critically impact which phytoplankton live and which die, says Oscar Schofield, an oceanography professor at Rutgers University. “It likewise regulates how much phytoplankton and what type. The states of the ocean might prefer a particular toxic species, and that causes it to arise,” he says. Known colloquially as “red tides,” these harmful algal blooms have been known to devastate fisheries along the Pacific and Atlantic beaches.

But as mortifying as climate change and dangerous blooms can be, the news isn’t all bad for aquatic life, Schofield says.

“At Palmer Station, there’s been a drip in the Adélie penguin population by an amount of quantity,” he states. “But sub-polar penguins that endure in the Falkland Islands—those populations are developing. Species have a lot of unexplored capacities for adoption. They can arise and change their characteristics—but it befalls slowly.”

The question is, Schofield says, whether organisms can adapt in time with the climate change to guarantee their survival. For phytoplankton, aquatic life, and humans alike, that settles to be seen.

Planktons world map by oxygen production density.

Additional resources: Pacificstandard