A new article published in the 29 July issue of the journal Nature reveals for the first time that microscopic marine algae known as “phytoplankton” have been declining globally over the 20th century. Phytoplankton forms the basis of the marine food chain and sustains diverse assemblages of species ranging from tiny zooplankton to large marine mammals, seabirds, and fish. Says lead author Daniel Boyce, “Phytoplankton is the fuel on which marine ecosystems run. A decline of phytoplankton affects everything up the food chain, including humans.”
Using an unprecedented collection of historical and recent oceanographic data, a team from Canada’s Dalhousie University documented phytoplankton declines of about 1% of the global average per year. This trend is particularly well documented in the Northern Hemisphere and after 1950, and would translate into a decline of approximately 40% since 1950. The scientists found that long-term phytoplankton declines were negatively correlated with rising sea surface temperatures and changing oceanographic conditions.