To Study Global Warming, Researchers Heated the Ocean Themselves

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 31, 2017 2:28 pm
Researchers on their way into the field. (Credit: Gail Ashton)

Researchers on their way into the field. (Credit: Gail Ashton)

A perennial problem for climate science is that much of it lies in the realm of abstraction. Various models and forecasts compete for relevance, based on arcane statistical formulations that appear as so much gibberish to science reporters and readers alike.

Well, rest easy, weary travelers — here’s a climate study that leaves the ponderous math behind in favor of a real-world simulation of warming Antarctic waters. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey decided to see what the effects of a small change in water temperature would be in the most straightforward way possible — they went and warmed the water up themselves.

Try It Ourselves

The scientists took plastic slabs threaded through with heating coils and left them on the seabed near the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island for nine months. The experiments, published Thursday in Current Biology, included panels calibrated to warm the water nearby by 1 and 2 degrees Celsius, as well as control panels that produced no heating. Those temperature changes mirror what is predicted to happen within 50 and 100 years, respectively, and the researchers checked back every month or so to see what was happening.

After just two months, noticeable differences had already become apparent. The 1-degree panels had become dominated by a single species of bryozoan, a kind of tiny, filter-feeding invertebrate, pushing out most other species. On the panels that served as controls, the ecosystem was much more balanced, mirroring the normal conditions in Antarctic waters. The 2-degree panels were also much more favorable to the bryozoans, but the makeup was a bit more diverse. Still evident, however, was the the loss of diversity as some species began to take over.

The time of season also seemed to play into how changing temperatures affected the marine ecosystem. Some species that had been doing well in the summer months began to drop off as fall approached, while others did even better.

The panels placed on the seabed. (Credit: Gail Ashton)

The panels placed on the seabed. (Credit: Gail Ashton)

The results highlight the fact that global warming won’t necessarily kill off all of the wildlife in the oceans; what it will do, however, is cause striking shifts in the ecology. Some species fare better in warm waters while others overheat. Some enjoy water that’s more acidic, while others waste away. In the Antarctic, it appears the bryozoans have a rosy future. Other animals, perhaps not so much.

Poles At Risk

Warming is of special concern near the poles both because those regions are predicted to see the greatest temperature increases and because species there have become adapted to an environment that changes very little. Because it’s cold year-round, most of the species aren’t equipped to deal with rapid warming. Indeed, among the species that did respond well to rising temperatures, the growth was much faster than researchers anticipated based on previous models, signaling that our understanding of the cold oceans is still limited.

“I was quite surprised,” says Gail Ashton of the British Antarctic Survey and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in a news release. “I have spent most of my career working in temperate climates where communities experience much greater temperature fluctuations and wasn’t expecting such a response to just 1 degree C of change.”

The study isn’t a perfect model of warming oceans because it couldn’t capture factors like rising acidity, nutrient availability or larger-scale changes to the ecosystem. In addition, the warming they initiated also happened much faster than it would in the environment, which could potentially give organisms time to adapt. It was also run over only a short period of time — other effects may take years to set in. Finally, it’s worth remembering that this served just as a model of Antarctic waters. Species in other parts of the world may deal with global warming differently.

It’s abundantly clear that climate change will shift ecosystems around the world, though. Similar experiments run in coral reefs, alpine forests, intertidal zones, and the tundra have all returned similar results. When the environment changes, diversity takes a nosedive as the few species that can survive take over. A 2006 study found that less diverse ocean environments were more prone to resource collapse and had poorer recovery potential, stability and water quality. Diverse environments are more stable and disease-resistant, those with only a few species have little genetic variation to deal with future disasters.

So, the Antarctic likely won’t become a barren wasteland because of climate change; there will still be plants and animals there. Without the complex, diverse environment that has been built up over the course of millions of years, however, it will have lost something crucial to any ecosystem: resilience.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Try it with refrigerated panels, reversing the direction of convection.
    “ACK! THBBFT!”

  • OWilson

    Nobel Prize stuff there!

    My biggest fear is falling Big Horned Sheep. As the world warms, the tree line progresses further up the mountain slopes, as the permanent ice melts, driving the poor unfortunate beasts to much steeper and much more unsafe heights.

  • libertarian soul

    Interesting, but the conclusions the author draws from the study border on the obvious: as climates change, so does the life that thrives in them. This is in fact how evolution is predicted to work. Which brings us to a critical question: Let’s say human beings had the power to control environmental temperatures and climates and we “kept the dial” at 1990’s levels. What happens to evolution then? How will we know whether we are fighting the natural state, or preserving it? In humankind’s mad desire for control, we may do more harm than good. My perspective: focus more on reducing pollution, which hurts all life to varying degrees, and less on climate change, which is inevitable and perhaps even necessary for the resilience the author fears we are losing.

  • Bud Johnson

    While this is a very interesting article, all that is proven is that living creatures and organisms adapt to the ever-changing environment. I understand the some of the fears that people have with the idea of global warming; however, life will continue. Over millions of years, the earth and the organisms found on Earth have adapted to survive and to reproduce which made them stronger and more resilient. Like evolution teaches, survival of the fittest will occur which is probably frightening to those who feel that they are weaker or consider certain species weaker than others.

  • J Smith

    The earth has bene a complete iceball. the poles have been near tropical countless times.

    What Houston showed any thinking person is the issue is not the storm itself but the amount of development, the placement of human and material assets in paths were storms have been dumping those amounts of water for as long as the North and South America have been joined by an isthumus.

    if every carbon tax climate accord or scheme had already been in place the science says the accelerated greenhouse affect is still going to happen.
    Population growth in Africa and India alone will cause profoundly more greenhouse gases even if the most optimistic efficiency and carbon tax schemes are all immediately put in place.

    We need a three pronged strategy to deal with this:
    1) tax all persons having more than two kids. Penalize/sanction all countries that do not comply.
    2) Get going on carbon capture and sequestration (perhaps using taxes on people worldwide who have more than two kids). The peer reviewed work on this suggest that positive efficiencies (more carbon captured than created in the process) could be had in 10 years, and the ability to completely remove all atmospheric greenhouse overages in 25-35 years — ending the threat of global warming from either human caused, or possible future natural events (in fact protecting us from cooling events too).
    3) make all development movable and less suspetable. Climate has changed over and over. it is our permanency of human developed areas (and conversely of areas set aside for natural habitat) that makes our global and regional systems susceptible., The Sahara is supposed to move, the jungles, the savanna, coniferous forests, ice caps and glaciation are supposed to move north and south, they have throughout all of the earths existence.

    right now, at this very moment a higher portion of infrastructure and development funding, public and private is being spent on areas that are most susceptible compared to areas that are not. More money is being spent in developing the NYC area of NY and NJ including even more destruction of wetlands) than the rest of NY.That is insane.

  • OWilson

    The problem is this generation of Kardashian worshiping completely spoiled generation who have been taught that they are the Stewards of the Earth and that they only have 10 years or so to save it!

    The end of the Earth has been in the works for 4,500,000,000 years, but they have been brainwashed by politicians that it will end in their own paltry, blink of a eye, precious and special lifetimes!

    How can you deal with that? Lol

    The answer is, of course you can’t, It’s like religion!


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