Abrupt shifts in 21st-century plankton communities

Cael, B. B., Dutkiewicz, S., & Henson, S. (2021). Abrupt shifts in 21st-century plankton communities. Science Advances, 7(44), eabf8593. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abf8593


Marine microbial communities are critical in sustaining ocean food webs. However, these communities will change with climate through gradual or foreseeable changes but likely have much more substantial consequences when sudden and unpredictable. Through a complex mathematical model of marine microbial ecosystem, the authors of this study found that climate change–driven shifts over the 21st century are often abrupt, large in amplitude and extent, and unpredictable using standard early warning signals. Phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) with unique resource needs are prone to abrupt shifts. These abrupt shifts in biomass, biological productivity, and phytoplankton community structure are concentrated in Atlantic and Pacific subtropics. Abrupt changes in environmental variables such as temperature and nutrients rarely precede these ecosystem shifts, indicating that rapid community restructuring can occur in response to gradual environmental changes, particularly in nutrient supply rate ratios.