Even small temperature changes can affect marine ecosystems

Kramer Phillips By Kramer Phillips | 3 years ago

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey have found that a single degree of warming in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula could significantly change the region’s local ecosystems, a new study published in Current Biology reports.

To make this discovery, scientists placed heated panels on the seafloor that were either left at ambient water temperature, or increased by 1 or 2 degrees Celsius in order to represent future temperature. They then monitored the growth of sediment-dwelling species on the panels over the next nine months.

Though the panels only warmed water a few millimeters above their surface, the slight increase was enough to trigger massive changes across animal communities. For example, a rise of just 1 degree Celsius nearly doubled the growth of a tiny filter-feeder known as Fenestrulina rugula, and it increased the territory of the marine worm Romanchella perrieri by 70 percent.

“You can imagine that one species taking over the whole space and rarer species wouldn’t be able to compete with that,” said lead author Gail Ashton, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, according to ABC Online.

While a 1 degree Celsius change created clear ecological patterns, a rise in water temperature of 2 degrees Celsius yielded much more muddled results. Some species flourished, some plateaued, and many died off. This suggests such a rise is too much for some species. In fact, the team believes an increase of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius is all the animals in the area can handle before dying off. 

Such information is important, and could help researchers get a better idea of how climate change will affect marine ecosystems in the coming years. Not only that, but the study builds off of previous research that looked at bigger temperature swings. The team hopes to further their research and try and conduct more oceanic experiments in the coming months. While there have been many climate experiments on land, much less have occurred in marine areas.

“The marine scientific community really needs to catch up to broaden our understanding,” said Rebecca L. Kordas, a marine ecologist at Imperial College London who was not involved in the new study, according to  The New York Times.