A Tiny Contributor to a Major Problem

We used to believe melting ice was but an effect of rising temperatures caused by global warming. But, it seems that melting ice has unearthed another contributor further snowballing this problem.

   Phytoplankton are small, single celled organisms that use photosynthesis to create energy. Yet, though they are small, their impact is becoming quite large.

Fig. 1 An image of Phytoplankton

As the arctic ice continues to melt each year, more ocean space becomes open and available for these plankton. Increased light, nutrients, and ocean temperature only stimulate their growth. As they grow in population, their heat grows as well, causing an already warming planet to warm even faster. This problem is complementary to what researchers call the “ice-albedo effect”. As more white, reflective ice melts, more dark, absorbing ocean is unveiled.

Fig. 2 “A comparison of March (left) and September (right) sea ice extent between 1979 (white plus blue) and 2014 (white).”

While light surfaces like ice have a high albedo, and reflect short wave radiation back up to space, cooling the earth, dark surfaces like the ocean have a low albedo, and absorb these short waves of radiation. In turn, the radiation is released in the long wave form of heat, which gets trapped by greenhouse gases accumulating in the troposphere layer of the atmosphere, and sent back down to earth.

Fig. 3 The Greenhouse Effect

Fig. 4 The Albedo Effect

The plankton, (filling) the top layer of the ocean, only further absorb heat and amplify this problem. Greater ocean area, combined with the growing plankton population, could amplify global warming by about 20%.

This new problem, adding to the current trouble of Global warming, make me worry. If a small creature like a phytoplankton can have such a big effect, what other small plants or animals are influencing global warming, and speeding up the affair? There is always talk about humanity’s exponentially expanding amount of carbon emissions. But what if there are even more natural processes that also should be taken into account? And what if they can be stopped, or impeded? If humans cannot be easily stopped, it it our task to find what can be, before greenhouse gases become out of control.

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