These microscopic phytoplankton can be seen from space. And they're disappearing rapidly.
Have you ever thought to yourself, "Man, oxygen is so cool. It lets me breath, it keeps my heart and lungs healthy, who do I have to thank for this stuff?"
Well the answer to that is simple. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis, which is why trees and plants get a lot of their due credit here on land.
But wait ... there's more!
Phytoplankton are the unsung heroes of all that delicious O2 we breathe.
Phytoplankton are mostly invisible to the naked eye and live in the ocean's surface. Just like trees and plants, these one-celled creatures soak up energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into nutrients. The byproduct of that process is fresh oxygen, which is released into the water.
Scientists estimate that phytoplankton actually produce about half the world's oxygen.
But, unfortunately, phytoplankton might be in some serious trouble.
A new study has revealed that phytoplankton populations in the Indian Ocean have decreased up to 30% over the last 16 years. Which is a big problem for those of us who enjoy breathing.
What's to blame for the plummet of the phytoplankton population?
According to the researchers, warming of the ocean's surface has led to a decline in ocean mixing — which is the process by which nutrients are carried from the ocean depths up to the surface. Phytoplankton die off when their access to these nutrients is restricted.
Because phytoplankton are a key part of a very complicated oceanic food web, the implications of their demise could be disastrous.
“If you reduce the bottom of the food chain, it’s going to cascade,” Raghu Murtugudde, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland in College Park told Science News.
When one part of an ecosystem disappears, the whole thing is in danger of collapsing. Murtugudde added that the decrease in phytoplankton may be partly responsible for tuna catch rates declining by up to 90% in the Indian Ocean over the last five decades.
The Indian Ocean has been steadily warming for years, taking a serious toll on the marine ecosystem.
The Indian ocean has become the place that absorbs the most excess heat generated by increasing greenhouse gases, according to a study conducted by climate scientists in India.
That study also shows that, currently, the Indian Ocean is projected to keep warming, while phytoplankton populations continue declining. This warm water has the potential to be carried to other oceans where it will have dramatic and lasting effects.
"If this warm blob of water in upper Indian Ocean is transported all the way to North Atlantic, that could affect the melting of Arctic sea ice," Sang-Ki Lee, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies told The Guardian. "That can also increase hurricane activity and influence the effects of drought in the US."
This problem might seem far away, but it actually hits extremely close to home.
Just because the decrease of phytoplankton is happening in an ocean in a different hemisphere doesn't mean people in America aren't affected by it.
It's also easy to forget sometimes that we human beings are an integral part of the world's ecosystems. Phytoplankton might be microscopic, but they play a huge role in our ability to live.
Not only do phytoplankton produce the oxygen we breath, they're also a food source for the fish we eat and a key part of the marine ecosystem that keeps our oceans thriving.
The Indian Ocean is now a case study for the oceanic effects of global warming, Murtugudde says. "[It] must thus be monitored closely for clues about the response of the marine ecosystems in the rest of the world oceans.”
We're all a part of the same planet. And that's not just a tree-hugging hippie slogan. It's a literal truth. We are affected by and connected to every living thing around us. Even a microscopic organism on the other side of the world.