Slosh and Burn: Forty Percent of Microscopic Plant Life in the Oceans Is Gone

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July 29 2010 2:39 PM

Slosh and Burn: Forty Percent of Microscopic Plant Life in the Oceans Is Gone

A report published yesterday in Nature has concluded that phytoplankton have been disappearing at an average rate of 1 percent a year for the last century.

Since 1950 alone, algal biomass decreased by around 40%, probably in response to ocean warming — and the decline has gathered pace in recent years.

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Researchers suspect that the warming of the oceans has reduced the rate at which different layers of water mix, so fewer nutrients circulate to the surface where the phytoplankton need them. And what are those little plants good for?

Phytoplankton are the basis of the entire marine food chain, and have an important role in the global carbon cycle. Through photosynthesis, they produce around half of the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere and drive the 'biological pump' that fixes 100 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide a day into organic material, which then sinks to the ocean floor when the phytoplankton die, or are grazed and digested.

So unless you need to eat or breathe, this probably won't matter too much.

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.

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