Research highlight

Climate science: Fast oceans aid plankton migration

Nature Communications

April 20, 2016

Rapid connectivity of the global surface ocean may enable plankton communities to better adapt to climate change, according to a study published in Nature Communications this week. The findings suggest that two patches of ocean, each randomly located anywhere in the surface ocean, can be connected by surface currents on timescales of less than ten years.

The degree to which planktonic communities - at the base of all marine food webs - are able to adapt to future climatic change remains uncertain. Some argue that, due to limited dispersal and isolation, plankton communities and their evolution are at the mercy of changing environmental conditions, whereas others suggest that interconnectivity of the global surface ocean will allow plankton communities to migrate to more favourable conditions.

In order to quantify the connectivity of the global surface ocean, Bror Jonsson and James Watson seed a high-resolution ocean model with particles and track their velocity and trajectory over a period of 100 years. The resulting dataset of minimum connection times for 1,150 destinations for every starting location is then completed via the application of a specific ‘shortest path’ algorithm, which identifies and calculates missing pathways for the entire global ocean. The authors find that different regions in the global surface ocean are connected within approximately ten years, suggesting that plankton communities may successfully migrate under the pressures of climate change.

In this study, the authors only address the timescales of physical connectivity, and do not consider additional environmental factors, such as nutrient availability or changing temperature gradients, which are also likely to impact the ability of marine communities to adapt to climate change.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms11239

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