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New app for citizen scientists to measure phytoplankton

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A Secchi disk helps scientists measure the density of plankton. Photo courtesy University of Washington.

Researchers hope to develop a global plankton map to track global warming impacts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — If you’re planning any ocean boating this year, you could help scientists track how global warming is affecting phytoplankton with new smartphone app. Some scientists fear that the minute organisms at the base of the marine food chain are dwindling, which would have significant consequences for all other marine organisms.

Some studies suggest that phytoplankton populations have already declined by 40 percent in some areas, but there haven’t been enough measurements to get a true global picture. That’s where the new Secchi app may help, according to Dr, Richard Kirby, a researcher at Plymouth University’s Marine Institute.

Secchi disks have long been used to measure phytoplankton density, simply by measuring the depth at which the disk disappears from view. The app enables mariners to report that measurement from wherever they are, and there’s even a Facebook page for seafarers who are participating in the project.

“The Secchi Disks are still used by marine scientists to study phytoplankton,” Kirby said. “But there are too few scientists to survey the world’s oceans as well as we would wish … if we can just get a small percentage of the global population of sailors involved, we can generate a database that will help us understand how life in the oceans is changing,” he said. “It would help us learn much more about these important organisms at a crucial time when their habitat is altering due to climate change.”

Kirby said the data could help build a map of the oceans that charts seasonal and annual changes in phytoplankton.

“As the phytoplankton live at the surface of the sea, they are being affected by rising sea temperatures due to climate change. A scientific paper published last year suggested the ocean’s plankton population had declined by as much as 40 per cent since 1950,” Kirby said.

“Like all marine creatures, phytoplankton have a preferred optimum sea temperature no matter where they are in the world and we need to know more about how they are changing in order to understand the effects on the ocean’s biology.”

The Secchi app has been developed by Dr Nicholas Outram and Dr Nigel Barlow, from Plymouth University’s School of Computing and Mathematics, and the database will be maintained by Pixalytics Ltd, a company founded by Dr Sam Lavender, an Honorary Reader at the University.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] Dr. Richard Kirby, the leader of the project, told the Summit County Citizens Voice that there are “too few scientists to survey the world’s oceans as well as we would [...]

  2. Thanks for running this important story, Summit County Citizens Voice. 3 other points that might make this ‘environmental’ story even more relevant for the average reader ala ‘why should I care.’ a) food – what are the statistics of commerical fish and seafood that people consume that rely plankton for food. b) jobs and the economy: how many jobs are related to ocean harvesting of fish and seafood: commercial fisherman, delivery, restuarants, food stores, etc. c) oxygen and rainfall – first and foremost, people need air to breathe and water to drink and grow food. What is the effect of declining phytoplankton (marine plants that generate 50% of our planet’s oxygen and water vapor for rain) upon our planet’s rainfall patterns and oxygen production?

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