What does a changing climate mean for Phytoplankton and what does this mean for our planet?

— Written by Ean Eberhard

The microscopic marine algae known as Phytoplankton are incredibly important to our planet. Although minuet in size these organisms have an immense amount of responsibility within both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Phytoplankton are primary producers, the foundation of the marine food web, feeding everything from zooplankton to massive whales. As a primary producer these phytoplankton create the foundation of the aquatic food web and thus bare the weight of the rest of the aquatic food web. In other words, the fluctuation in phytoplankton abundance could mean a collapse in the web.  Phytoplankton are not only a source of food but are also a large contributor to the biological carbon pump, responsible for most of the carbon dioxide transfer from the atmosphere to the ocean. For this reason, changes in the growth of phytoplankton could have a great effect on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Phytoplankton can also be detrimental. When nutrients levels are high, phytoplankton can grow out of control, creating algal blooms which produce extremely toxic compounds with many harmful effects.   There is no doubt that the balance in phytoplankton abundance is crucial to all life. Unfortunately, phytoplankton are experiencing more stress due to a changing climate.

For the next seven weeks I will be studying the photochemistry of phytoplankton in response to three different stressors. This experiment will be a multifactorial design that will give a more realistic look into how the stress of a changing climate is much more complex than rising temperatures. These three stressors include variances in light intensity, temperature, and CO2 levels. Each of these stressors correspond to variances in the phytoplankton’s environment due to the change in climate. I will dive deeper into the response of these phytoplankton by measuring cell abundance, cell efficiency, Dissolved Inorganic Carbon and pH. This experiment will give us an insight into just how exactly phytoplankton may respond to a changing world and the findings may provide an insight into how the effects on phytoplankton could have a ripple effect on all other life.

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