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Scripps research gives tiny phytoplankton a large role in Earth's climate system

The ecological importance of phytoplankton, microscopic plants that free-float through the world's oceans, is well known. Among their key roles, the one-celled organisms are the major source of sustenance for animal life in the seas.

Now, in a new study conducted by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, our understanding of the significance of phytoplankton has been taken to a new level.

Robert Frouin and Sam Iacobellis have argued in a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research that phytoplankton exert a significant and previously uncalculated influence on Earth's climate.

The Frouin-Iacobellis study uses satellite imagery to show that phytoplankton, which are said to inhabit three-quarters of Earth's surface, hold a fundamental warming influence on the planet by capturing and absorbing the sun's radiation. The authors show that radiation that otherwise might be reflected back to space is absorbed by phytoplankton and results in a global climate warmer by 0.1 to 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit (compared with an open seawater scenario without phytoplankton).

"Our paper shows that if we did not have phytoplankton in the ocean, we would have a cooler climate. This is a problem that we have to look at more carefully if we want to conduct more accurate predictions of climate change," said Frouin, a research meteorologist at Scripps. "Certainly the effect we have shown from phytoplankton is not negligible, so we need to look at it closely."

"Eventually, I hope that incorporating this new information will lead to better predictions of future climate, and that will help policymakers make more far-sighted decisions," said Iacobellis, a member of the Climate Research Division at Scripps.

Furthermore, in the paper Frouin and Iacobellis argue that the impact of phytoplankton extends beyond its warming influence. Changes in Earth's surface reflection caused by increases o
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Contact: Mario Aguilera or Cindy Clark
scrippsnews@ucsd.edu
858-534-3624
University of California - San Diego
6-Nov-2002


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