Global climate change is causing shifts in biogeographical distributions of many macro- and microorganisms on the land and in the sea. However, as is so often the case, species-specific responses are highly variable, limiting our ability to accurately project the impact of climate change on range distributions. A study this week published in PNAS, and picked up in the news, compares historical and projected future ranges of 87 North Atlantic diatom and dinoflagellate taxa based on projected changes in ocean environmental conditions.
Interestingly, Barton et al find a longitudinal and latitudinal shift, rather than the straight poleward shift commonly assumed, and species-specific responses will likely result in large changes in community composition. Phytoplankton form the base of the pelagic food web, so community-level changes will also propagate through the trophic levels, affecting ecosystem processes such as biogeochemical cycling, and ecosystem services such as the provision of commercial fish stocks.
This research was based on information gained from the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey, operated by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, based in Plymouth, UK. The CPR surveys have been running almost continuously since 1931. Studies such as the one discussed here really highlight the ecological and economical value of long-term monitoring programmes, but the hefty financial and logistical investments means they are unfortunately few and far between, in the ocean and on land. However, with the rise of citizen science’ approaches, perhaps there’s real opportunity now to increase long-term monitoring using new and innovative techniques. Let's all get out there, do science and gather data!