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Climate change probably making plankton mad

YOU don't want to make phytoplankton mad. These microscopic sea plants are at the bottom of the food chain in the waters that surround the Antarctic peninsula, and when they're unhappy, everything that depends on them suffers, including fish, penguins and possibly, eventually, people.

A new study published on Thursday in the journal Science indicates that some of these Antarctic phytoplankton have become increasingly grumpy over the past 30 years.

Like most plants, phytoplankton need food and sunlight to survive. For some that live off the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula, getting these essentials has been an increasing challenge, with a 12-percent decrease in phytoplankton populations seen in the last three decades.

United States researchers figured this out by looking at satellite data and tracking the amount of chlorophyll - a sign of phytoplankton photosynthesis - in the Southern Ocean off the Antarctic peninsula, a long tail of land that juts out from the main body of the continent.

This area is a good place to look for signs of climate change because it is warming faster than any other place on Earth in the winter.

Phytoplankton are excellent markers for climate change because they respond quickly, sometimes in as little as a day, to varying environmental conditions, and because so much of the food chain relies on their survival.

Because atmospheric circulation patterns are shifting over the peninsula - probably due to climate change - there are now cloudy skies where there used to be sunshine and vice versa, said study co-author Martin Montes-Hugo. In the southern part of the peninsula, the clouds are decreasing and sunlight is melting the sea ice, freeing up more open water that sunlight can shine through, Montes-Hugo said by telephone.

In the northern part of the peninsula closer to the warm equator there are more clouds, and sea ice is even more reduced than in the south.


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