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Source of Half Earth’s Oxygen Gets Little Credit

May 30, 2012

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By John Roach

Fish, whales, dolphins, crabs, seabirds, and just about everything else that makes a living in or off of the oceans owe their existence to phytoplankton, one-celled plants that live at the ocean surface.


“Marine biogeochemical processes both respond to and influence climate,” Frouin said. “A change in phytoplankton abundance and species may result from changes in the physical processes controlling the supply of nutrients and sunlight availability.”


In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen into the water. Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis. The other half is produced via photosynthesis on land by trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants


Research by Frouin and his Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleague Sam Iacobellis suggests an increase in phytoplankton may actually cause the Earth to grow warmer, due to increased solar absorption.

“Our simulations show that by increasing the phytoplankton abundance in the upper oceanic layer, sea surface temperature is increased, as well as air temperature,” Frouin said.

As Sarmiento notes, phytoplankton obtains most of its carbon dioxide from the oceans, not the atmosphere.

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