Research says coral changes blamed on global warming began 150 years ago

Long-lived deep-sea corals preserve evidence of a major shift in the open Pacific Ocean ecosystem since around 1850, according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The findings, published Thursday in Nature, indicate that changes at the base of the marine food web observed in recent decades in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre may have begun more than 150 years ago at the end of the Little Ice Age.

Deep-sea corals are colonial organisms that can live for thousands of years, feeding on organic matter that rains down from the upper levels of the ocean. The corals’ branching, tree-like skeletons are composed of a hard protein material that incorporates chemical signatures from their food sources. As a result, changes in the composition of the growth layers in deep-sea corals reflect changes in the organisms that lived in the surface waters at the time each layer formed.

“They’re like living sediment traps, recording long-term changes in the open ocean that we can’t see any other way,” said coauthor Matthew McCarthy, professor of ocean sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Scientists can study sediment cores taken from the ocean floor for clues to past conditions in the oceans, but that approach is not very useful for the most recent millennia. In the open ocean of the North Pacific, sediment accumulates so slowly that the entire Holocene epoch (the past 12,000 years or so) is represented by less than 10 centimeters (4 inches) of sediment that has been stirred up by organisms living on the sea floor. “Even if there were good sediment records, we would never get the level of detail we can get from the corals,” McCarthy said.

To analyze the coral skeletons, the researchers combined carbon dating with a novel technique for analyzing nitrogen isotopes in proteins. They were able to reconstruct records over the past 1,000 years indicating that a shift occurred around 1850 in the source of nitrogen feeding the surface waters of the open ocean. As a result of decreasing nitrogen inputs from subsurface water, the phytoplankton community at the base of the food web became increasingly dominated by nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, which are able to use the nitrogen gas absorbed by surface waters from the atmosphere.

“In the marine environment, the two major sources of nitrogen are dissolved nitrate, which is more concentrated in the subsurface and deep water and is brought to the surface by upwelling, and nitrogen fixation by specialized microorganisms that are like the legumes of the sea,” explained first author Owen Sherwood, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher at the university and is now at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The shift revealed in the coral record from an ecosystem supported by nitrate coming up from deeper waters to one supported more by nitrogen-fixing organisms may be a result of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre expanding and becoming warmer, with more stable layering of warm surface water over cooler subsurface water. This increased stratification limits the amount of nutrients delivered to the surface in nutrient-rich subsurface water.

Scientists have observed warming and expansion of the major mid-ocean subtropical gyres in the past few decades and have attributed this trend to global warming. The new study puts these observations in the context of a longer-term trend. “It seems that the change in nitrogen sources, and therefore possibly large-scale shifts in ocean conditions, switched on at the end of the Little Ice Age and it is still continuing today,” McCarthy said.

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