Imperial College London

Tiny plankton likely to ride out global warming


Image of a long coastline

Photo: Martina Doblin

Plankton have evolved to survive a wide range of conditions, thanks to their unexpectedly vast ocean travels, a new study suggests.

These microscopic organisms support the marine food web, providing food for whales, fish and crustaceans.

Scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia and Imperial College London have been modelling how plankton drift with ocean currents to understand whether they are threatened by ocean warming.

Now we have modelled this ocean drift on a global scale, it will be possible to get a much better handle on how these tiny critters must have evolved to cope with temperature changes.

– Dr Erik van Sebille

The results of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), show for the first time the range of temperatures that plankton travel through. In most locations, they endure temperature extremes that go beyond what is predicted by models of global warming.

The scientists used a computer model of global ocean circulation to simulate the journeys taken by three million virtual plankton, and the temperature conditions they experience.

They found that ocean surface currents can transport drifting particles up to 3,500 kilometres in 500 days, which is about the equivalent of a person rowing from California to Hawaii. During this journey, plankton are subjected to temperature changes of up to 10°C more than if they stayed in one location. 

“Previous exposure to fluctuating temperature can influence how planktonic populations fare under future temperature changes,” said lead author, Associate Professor Martina Doblin, who heads the Productive Coasts research program at UTS.

“Our results suggest that the effects of climate change on ocean plankton will need to be re-evaluated to take this into account.”

“There has been much recent interest in the future of coral reefs, because of their role in supporting biodiversity. But drifting plankton, that are invisible to the naked eye, are responsible for half the Earth’s oxygen and for global fisheries yields, and are therefore important in providing other essential ecosystem services,” said Associate Professor Doblin.


Spiral shaped plankton. Photo: Martina Doblin

Waters in the Southern Indian Ocean, for example, had a seasonal temperature range of 13 to 18°C, whereas the study showed plankton that travelled through those waters had experienced temperatures as low as 5°C and as high as 20°C.

Climate change models suggest that ocean temperatures are only likely to warm up to a few degrees in the next century in the Southern Indian Ocean. 

Co-author and oceanographer, Dr Erik van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, said: “Until now, it has not been possible to understand how plankton will experience climate change, because they move at the mercy of ocean currents.”

“Now we have modelled this ocean drift on a global scale, it will be possible to get a much better handle on how these tiny critters must have evolved to cope with temperature changes”, he said.

In June 2016, Associate Professor Doblin will board Australia’s oceanographic research vessel, the RV Investigator, and collect plankton from a range of warm and cool ocean environments. With these experiments she expects to further explore the capacity of plankton to withstand temperature variations. “We can now go out and test the accuracy of our model predictions, an exciting next step” she said.


'Drift in ocean currents impacts intergenerational microbial exposure to temperature' is published by Martina A. Doblin and Erik van Sebille, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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