From: Roger Greenway, ENN
Published November 10, 2009 06:53 AM

Glacier Retreat in Antarctica Has Unexpected Benefit

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has been studying glaciers in Antarctica, looking at their reducing surface area. As the glaciers retreat, more open water is exposed, and lead author of a new study, Professor Lloyd Peck of the BAS found that large blooms of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton are flourishing in areas of open water left exposed by the recent and rapid melting of ice shelves and glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula. This remarkable colonization is having a beneficial impact on climate change. 


Phytoplankton use chlorophyll and other pigments to absorb sunlight for photosynthesis, and when they grow in large numbers, they change the way the ocean surface reflects sunlight. They are eaten by krill and are the foundation of the ocean food web. Animals such as sponges and corals also consume phytoplankton. They can live for decades to hundreds of years and when they die they form mats on the seabed that are buried under sedimentation where it can store carbon for thousands or millions of years.

Reporting this week in the journal Global Change Biology, scientists from the BAS estimate that this new natural 'sink' is taking an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of carbon from the ocean and atmosphere each year. This is equivalent to 12.8 million tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

"Although this is a small amount of carbon compared to global emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere it is nevertheless an important discovery. It shows nature's ability to thrive in the face of adversity. We need to factor this natural carbon-absorption into our calculations and models to predict future climate change. So far we don't know if we will see more events like this around the rest of Antarctica's coast but it's something we'll be keeping a close eye on."

Image shows the retreating area of the Sheldon Glacier.

Professor Peck and his colleagues compared records of coastal glacial retreat with records of the amount of chlorophyll (green plant pigment essential for photosynthesis) in the ocean. They found that over the past 50 years, melting ice has opened up at least 24,000 km2 of new open water (an area similar to the size of Wales) – and this has been colonized by carbon-absorbing phytoplankton. According to the authors this new bloom is the second largest factor acting against climate change so far discovered on Earth (the largest is new forest growth on land in the Arctic).

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