Mainer leads scientists who set sail to study vital plankton

A group of scientists led by Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences has ventured into the middle of the South Atlantic to study the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and other factors on a type of microscopic plant.

Their research has implications for one of the most important organisms in the oceanic food chain.

The expedition, led by Barney Balch of the Boothbay Harbor lab, is spending 36 days between the tips of South America and Africa, collecting seawater samples during one of the world’s largest recurring phytoplankton blooms.

“The water is brilliant green, an amazing sight from horizon to horizon,” said Balch, speaking by phone Monday from the research vessel Melville. Six other scientists and staffers from Bigelow and a Colby College chemistry professor are among 23 scientists participating in the 7,650-mile voyage.

Six days into the expedition, Balch said the scientists are already getting results.

Theirs is the first systematic study of the coccolithophore phytoplankton, a microscopic marine plant that covers itself with hard calcium carbonate scales and lives near the ocean surface. Coccolithophores are the base of the marine food chain, and live throughout the world’s oceans. But they are particularly plentiful in the South Atlantic, enough so that their highly reflective scales can be detected by satellites.

The expedition is focusing on about two-thirds of what is known as the Great Southern Coccolithophore Belt, where the plankton blooms in the southern hemisphere’s spring and summer.

The researchers are trying to assess how coccolithophores are affected by increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The excess carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, forming carbonic acid, which causes the ocean to become more acidic.

Researchers want to know whether the increased acidity is interfering with the chemical process by which coccolithophores form their scales. If the organisms were no longer able to build the shells and their numbers dwindled, it would have huge consequences for the oceans’ ecosystems.

Beth Quimby, The Portland Press Herald, 18 January 2011. Full article.

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