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Global Warming Threatens Ocean Stability

The effect of global warming on the world's temperatures has long been discussed. Now there is information that global warming could affect the stability of the world's oceans, and unless some action is taken, global warming could be accelerated even more. The conclusion is based on data from a satellite that took pictures of the microscopic plants that live on the ocean's surface. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Phytoplankton are at the bottom of the ocean food chain, and experts say their role in maintaining the health of the environment is enormous.

Scientists say the microscopic plants, which float on the top of the ocean, suck 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year and convert the greenhouse gas into organic deposits that maintain marine life.

Studying images taken by NASA's SeaWiFS satellite over a 10 year period, researchers have concluded that increases in temperatures could severely harm the phytoplankton and threaten ocean biologic production.

They say reductions in phytoplankton could also accelerate global warming because the tiny plants would become less efficient at siphoning-off the greenhouse gas.

Data from the SeaWiFS study are published in the journal Nature.

Oscar Scoffield of Rutgers University says the study is a wake up call.

"A small change has a huge impact for life as we know it on this planet," said Oscar Scoffield. "And this is one of the very first studies showing a big global change in this earth system."

The SeaWiFS satellite, which is owned by the U.S. space agency NASA, measured the biological activity of the plants during a major warming trend known as el Nino and cooling trend called la Nina.

Scientists saw that during warming periods, phytoplankton production become sluggish, while during cooler periods the plants flourished. They say this is a snapshot of what could happen if the earth continues to warm as a result of the greenhouse effect.

Study co-author Gene Carl Feldman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center oversees the SeaWiFs project.

"Think of the White Cliffs of Dover and things like that," said Carl Feldman. "That's all organic carbon that was fixed by phytoplankton. That tells you that the ocean's biology, the ocean itself, plays a huge, huge, huge role in regulating where carbon is on the planet."

The authors of the study say it is not a prediction of the future. Rather they say it should be used as a model for scientists who are studying climate change.