Ocean currents push phytoplankton around the globe faster than thought

Posted: April 20, 2016 by oldbrew in Ocean dynamics

The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt - blue  = deep cold and saltier water current, red = shallower and warmer current  [credit: NWS / NOAA]

The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt – blue = deep cold and saltier water current, red = shallower and warmer current
[credit: NWS / NOAA]

Evidence here from researchers of shorter oceanic cycles than expected. They say ‘The general message is that all parts of the ocean surface are connected on surprisingly short time scales’, which could be ‘just 10 years’.

The billions of single-celled marine organisms known as phytoplankton can drift from one region of the world’s oceans to almost any other place on the globe in less than a decade, Princeton University researchers have found.

Unfortunately, the same principle can apply to plastic debris, radioactive particles and virtually any other man-made flotsam and jetsam that litter our seas, the researchers found. Pollution can thus become a problem far from where it originated within just a few years.

The finding that objects can move around the globe in just 10 years suggests that ocean biodiversity may be more resilient to climate change than previously thought, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Communications. Phytoplankton form the basis of the marine food chain, and their rapid spread could enable them to quickly repopulate areas where warming seas or ocean acidification have decimated them.

“Our study shows that the ocean is quite efficient in moving things around,” said Bror Fredrik Jönsson, an associate research scholar in Princeton’s Department of Geosciences, who conducted the study with co-author James R. Watson, a former Princeton postdoctoral researcher who is now a researcher at Stockholm University. “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,” Jönsson said.

The researchers confirmed that the travel times calculated by their model were similar to the time it took real objects accidentally dumped into the ocean to be carried by currents. For instance, 29,000 rubber ducks and other plastic bath toys toppled off a Chinese freighter in 1992 and have since been tracked as a method of understanding ocean currents.

A similar utility has stemmed from the “Great Shoe Spill of 1990” when more than 60,000 Nike athletic shoes plunged into the ocean near Alaska and have been riding the currents off the Pacific Northwest ever since.

The researchers’ model also matched the amount of time it took radioactive particles to reach the West Coast of the United States from Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, which released large amounts of radioactive materials into the Pacific Ocean following heavy damage from a tsunami in March 2011. The actual travel time of the materials was 3.6 years; the model calculated it would take 3.5 years.

Full phys.org report: Ocean currents push phytoplankton—and pollution—around the globe faster than thought

  1. ren says:

    NASA examines El Nino’s impact on ocean’s food source.


  2. oldbrew says:

    Maybe there’s a connection between ‘objects can move around the globe in just 10 years’, and phenomena like The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).


  3. Paul Vaughan says:

    The famous “great ocean conveyor belt” graphic is wrong and has destroyed realism in climate discussion.

  4. Paul Vaughan says:

    no maybe OB
    wind drives ocean currents (a fact that for whatever reason climate discussion enthusiasts don’t like)

  5. Paul Vaughan says:

    This study’s “news” isn’t news (but maybe it reflects increasing awareness).

  6. Paul Vaughan says:

    ah, yes …daily reminders — got it!

    now, back to chinese media studies, at least until climate enthusiasts drop the false geometric & spatiotemporal assumptions and get an order of magnitude more serious about sun & wind…

  7. oldbrew says:

    BoM: The Southern Annular Mode

    The Southern Annular Mode (SAM), also known as the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), describes the north–south movement of the westerly wind belt that circles Antarctica, dominating the middle to higher latitudes of the southern hemisphere.

    Positive phase:
    band of westerly winds contracts toward Antarctica

    higher pressures over southern Australia
    can relate to stable, dry conditions.

    Negative phase:
    band of westerly winds expands towards the equator

    more (or stronger) low pressure systems over southern Australia
    can mean increased storms and rain.
    [bold added]

  8. Paul Vaughan says:

    It has been 5 years now since I alerted climate enthusiasts of ubiquitously widespread false assumptions (of cultural rather than logical origin) undermining quantitative exploration of regional interannual variations:


    Unfortunately things have not improved culturally …at all.

    The clowns doing the gatekeeping still insist that all narratives MUST be based on FALSE geometric & spatiotemporal assumptions.

    They’re not sensible people. And it’s clear they never will be. In the hierarchy of priorities governing their decision-making, truth is subordinate to some other overriding factors. Where they believe they can get the wool over their dull audience’s eyes they do it because they believe that’s how to be politically effective.

    They aim first and foremost to appear to win arguments, not necessarily to be correct. They’re willing to settle for looking (not to be confused with being) somewhat reasonable. Where the truth suits them, they’ll underscore it, but they’ll shift the balance towards effectiveness whenever the truth hurts.

    They stubbornly and permanently insist that that which is of spatial origin be misinterpreted as being of temporal origin. That’s morally & logically corrupt.

    I advise members of the international climate skeptic community to step away from this group and consider how to support eclipsing emergence of a sun-climate-truth-respecting central node outside the politically-compromised usa.

  9. michael hart says:

    As Paul Vaughan says, it doesn’t seem like news, unless a person never gave it much thought in the first place.

    In an ecosystem, it seems quite sensible to look at the fastest transport of organisms. The average rate of transport may not be the most appropriate metric, except for those who have a pre-determined message of eco-doom to convey. When the ice-sheets retreated, forests probably advanced northwards into the newly-exposed land at a rate closer to the fastest transport of seeds, not the average rate.

  10. oldbrew says:

    Conveyor belt / Gulf Stream video – 90 seconds. Wind does get a mention 🙂