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A New Perspective on North Atlantic’s Marine Productivity • Watts Up With That?

Reevaluating Marine Productivity Trends

A recent article on titled “North Atlantic’s marine productivity may not be declining, according to new study of older ice cores” provides an intriguing counter-narrative to the often alarmist discourse on marine ecosystems and climate change. This University of Washington-led study challenges the prevailing belief of a significant decline in North Atlantic marine productivity due to climate change.

The Ice Core Evidence

Researchers analyzed ice cores from Greenland, tracing back 800 years, to assess marine productivity levels. Contrary to previous findings, which claimed a 10% decline in North Atlantic phytoplankton since the mid-1800s, this new study reveals that phytoplankton populations may actually be more stable than previously thought.

 A prominent 2019 study used ice cores in Antarctica to suggest that marine productivity in the North Atlantic had declined by 10% during the industrial era, with worrying implications that the trend might continue.

The team discovered that the decline in methanesulfonic acid (MSA) concentrations, previously interpreted as a sign of decreasing productivity, was offset by an increase in phytoplankton-derived sulfate. This implies that phytoplankton, essential for the marine ecosystem and global oxygen production, have maintained consistent sulfur emissions over the industrial era.

A Complex Atmospheric Process

The researchers highlight a more complex atmospheric process affecting marine productivity. Industrial emissions have altered the atmosphere’s chemistry, impacting the fate of gases emitted by phytoplankton. By measuring various sulfur-containing molecules in the ice core, they found that human-generated pollutants have influenced these measurements, providing a different perspective on marine productivity trends.

“Greenland ice cores show a decline in MSA concentrations over the industrial era, which was concluded to be a sign of declining primary productivity in the North Atlantic,” said lead author Ursula Jongebloed, a UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. “But our study of sulfate in a Greenland ice core shows that MSA alone can’t tell us the whole story when it comes to primary productivity.”

“When looking at the ice cores, we found that sulfate derived from phytoplankton increased during the industrial era,” Jongebloed said. “In other words, the decline in MSA is ‘offset’ by the simultaneous increase in phytoplankton-derived sulfate, indicating that phytoplankton-derived sulfur emissions have remained stable overall.”

Implications for Climate Science

This study underscores the importance of considering multiple factors and indicators when assessing environmental trends. It challenges the narrative of rapid ecological decline due to climate change, emphasizing the need for nuanced, multi-faceted research in understanding these complex systems.


The University of Washington’s research offers a balanced view of marine productivity trends in the North Atlantic. It reminds us that environmental changes are often more intricate than they appear, necessitating a comprehensive approach to scientific inquiry and policy-making​​.

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