Marine Ecosystems May Take Thousands of Years to Recover from Climate Change

First Posted: Mar 31, 2015 08:56 AM EDT

Even if climate change were to stop today, it could take millennia for deep sea ecosystems to recover. Scientists have taken a closer look at marine ecosystems and have found that they may take thousands of years to recover from climate-related upheavals.

In this latest study, the researchers examined a 30-foot-long core sample from the Pacific Ocean seafloor. The tube-like sediment core is a slice of ocean life as it existed between 3,400 and 16,100 years ago. It provides a before-and-after snapshot of what happened during the last major deglaciation, which was a time of abrupt climate warming, melting polar ice caps and the expansion of low oxygen zones in the ocean.

"In this study, we used the past to forecast the future," said Peter Roopnarine, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Tracing changes in marine biodiversity during historical episodes of warming and cooling tells us what might happen in years to come. We don't want to hear that ecosystems need thousands of years to recover from disruption, but it's critical that we understand the global need to combat modern climate impacts."

The sediment core revealed an ancient history of abundant, diverse and well-oxygenated seafloor ecosystems, followed by a period of oxygen loss and warming that seems to have triggered a rapid loss of biodiversity. In fact, invertebrate fossils are nearly non-existent during times of lower-than-average oxygen levels. This is particularly important to note as similar conditions begin to appear in the modern day.

That's not all the researchers found, though. It also reveals that it took quite some time before ecosystems recovered. In fact, the study suggests that future periods of global climate change may result in similar ecosystem-level effects with millennial-scale recovery periods.

"Folks in Oregon and along the Gulf of Mexico are all-too-familiar with the devastating impacts of low-oxygen ocean conditions on local ecosystems and economies," said Roopnarine. "We must explore how ocean floor communities respond to upheaval as we adapt to a 'new normal' of rapid climate change. We humans have to think carefully about the planet we are leaving for future generations."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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