Phytoplankton travels around the world faster than we thought

Written by on April 27, 2016 in Other News, Physical Oceanography

New research from Princeton University reveals that phytoplankton can drift from one region of the ocean to “almost any other place on the globe” in less than a decade.

Phytoplankton bloom in the Norwegian Sea. Photo credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA.

Phytoplankton bloom in the Norwegian Sea. Photo credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA.

The good news is that marine biodiversity may be more resilient to the effects of climate change than we thought. Phytoplankton forms the basis of the marine food web and if it can travel anywhere in less than ten years, it could help repopulate areas damaged by climate change pretty quickly.

The bad news is that marine pollution also travels that quickly. Radioactive particles, plastics, and any other kind of free-floating pollution can become a problem on the other side of the world in a very short period of time.

“Our study shows that the ocean is quite efficient in moving things around,” Bror Fredrik Jönsson, an associate research scholar in Princeton’s Department of Geosciences, said in a news release. “This comes as a surprise to a lot of people, and in fact we spent about two years confirming this work to make sure we got it right.”

Researchers used a model that followed phytoplankton wherever it went, which differs from other models that focus on movement in a specific region. It’s important to remember that the findings only account for organisms (and debris) that can’t control their movements.

The researchers were able to confirm the time scale of phytoplankton movement by comparing the model to real-world examples, ranging from the rubber ducks that were lost at sea in 1992 to the 2011 tsunami that released radioactive materials into the Pacific Ocean.

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Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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