In a worst case scenario, global productivity of phytoplankton could decrease by as much as 20 percent and in some areas, such as the North Atlantic, the loss could hit 50 percent. The study was conducted by Andreas Schmittner, an assistant professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.
In his sophisticated computer model, Schmittner does not predict that the Atlantic Conveyer current, which drags warm water from the southern tropics into the North Atlantic and warms Europe, will be disrupted. Rather, his study is one of the first to examine what would happen to the ocean food chain if such a disruption did take place.
"Phytoplankton are the basis of the entire marine food web," Schmittner said. "They ultimately affect everything from zooplankton to the larger fish that people consume."
The Atlantic Conveyer current has the strongest impact in the North Atlantic, but it is a global phenomenon, Schmittner said. Surface waters from the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Ocean and the southern Atlantic are pulled northward where they are cooled by the atmosphere in the North Atlantic. As the water cools, it sinks 2,000 to 3,000 meters and begins flowing southward. The upwelling from the mixing of waters constantly replenishes the supply of phytoplankton at the surface, forming a rich nutrient source at the bottom of the marine food web.
There is growing concern by a number of scientists, however, that higher levels of human-generated carbon dioxide could increase water and air temperatures and decrease salinity in the North Atlantic at a rate significant enough to prevent the sinking and ultimate mixin
Contact: Andreas Schmittner
Oregon State University