Marine Life Moving North Faster Than Landlubbers

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The animal stars of Shark Week, along with the supporting cast of marine life, may be scouting new locations in the north for future editions of the annual celebration of all things shark. A massive new review of evidence suggests that warming causes changes in long-distance marine migrations faster than shifts in the home ranges of plants and animals on land.

Results from 1,735 studies on changes in marine life suggest that more than 80 percent of recent alterations in ocean ecology may have resulted from global climate changes. Nature Climate Change recently published this tremendous analysis of previous studies.

Important links in the ocean food chain, such as phytoplankton, zooplankton and bony fish, moved their ranges an average of 72 kilometers closer to the poles over the past decade.

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Spring also springs sooner in the oceans. Spring changes in the ocean arrive more than four days sooner than historical records, which is nearly double the increase observed on land. Zooplankton and larval bony fish were most seriously influenced by this change in spring. Some species had moved up the time table on spring time activities by as much as 11 days.

Changes in the behaviors of plankton species could send ripples all the way to the top of the food chain. Plankton forms the base of many marine food webs. When plankton changes, many other creatures have to adapt or die. Even humans depend on the stability of the food webs linked to plankton, since plankton fatten up fish that end up in the market.

“This is the first comprehensive documentation of what is happening in our marine systems in relation to climate change,” said co-author Camille Parmesan of Plymouth University’s Marine Institute in a press release. “What it reveals is that the changes that are occurring on land are being matched by the oceans. And far from being a buffer and displaying more minor changes, what we’re seeing is a far stronger response from the oceans.”

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Seventeen institutions collaborated on this research, which will form part of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change Assessment Report due to be published this year.

“These results highlight the urgent need for governments around the globe to develop adaptive management plans to ensure the continued sustainability of the world’s oceans and the goods and services they provide to human society,” said co-author Pippa Moore  of Aberystwyth University.

IMAGE: A whale shark filtering plankton out of the ocean’s water (Jaontiveros, Wikimedia Commons)