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New research finds plankton may have unexpected resilience to warming ocean waters

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2017, file photo, a lobster fishing boat heads out to sea at sunrise off shore from Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2017, file photo, a lobster fishing boat heads out to sea at sunrise off shore from Portland, Maine.

New science published in the journal Nature led by a researcher at Boothbay's Bigelow Laboratory reveals that as the ocean warms, some plankton can absorb more climate-warming carbon than previously thought.

Bigelow senior scientist Michael Lomas said climate models predict that ocean waters can warm to a point where photosynthetic plankton stop taking up and storing carbon - shutting off like a light.

"Our data suggest that perhaps it's more like a dimmer switch in that biological adaptability allows the ocean to continue taking up carbon," Lomas said.

Three decades of data from the warming Sargasso Sea, he said, show that when some plankton lost ground, "cyanobacteria" that can efficiently store carbon took up the slack. Where models predicted that carbon sequestered in the ecosystem should have decreased significantly, it instead held steady. Lomas said that adaptability is good news.

"Because this shows that biology has some capacity to respond to the change in the environment that we're observing," Lomas said. "They don't have an infinite ability to adjust, but they do have some ability to adjust."

He said other scientists have theorized that plankton communities could adapt in this way, but these are the first such findings based on observed, real-world data. The next step, he said, is for policy-makers such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to adjust global warming models to better account for the ocean's unexpected resilience.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.