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Ancient oceans experienced a global surge in biological productivity

BOSTON---In work that could improve understanding of future climate change, University of Michigan researchers have documented a global-scale increase in oceanic biological productivity that occurred between about 6 million and 4 million years ago, during the late Miocene and early Pliocene epochs of geological history.

Graduate student Casey Hermoyian and Prof. Robert M. Owen of the U-M Department of Geological Sciences discovered the "biogenic bloom" by measuring levels of phosphorus in marine sediment cores collected from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Hermoyian reported their findings at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The waxing and waning of biological productivity in ancient oceans offers insights into climate change, Owen explains. Biological productivity is a measure of the amount of biomass (total living matter) produced in a given time. In oceans, biomass is produced mainly by photosynthesis: microscopic organisms (plankton) capture energy from the sun and use it to convert carbon dioxide and dissolved nutrients, such as phosphorus, into biomass. In the process, oxygen is released into the atmosphere as a byproduct.

By studying patterns of biological productivity, paleoceanographers can make inferences about climate, which is affected by changing levels of atmospheric gases. For example, a long period of high biological productivity could lead to a net loss in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which in turn could cause the Earth to cool---an anti-greenhouse effect.

"A basic paradigm of earth science is that the present is the key to the past. But in fact, in many cases the past also is the key to the future," says Owen. "One of the ways in which we try to understand the present-day climate and especially the future climate is by going back in the geologic record to see if we can discern the causes and effects of what occurred. And the more insight we can get from the past, the better we know how processes a
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Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan
rossflan@umich.edu
734-647-1853
University of Michigan
30-May-2001


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