Marine phytoplankton resilience may moderate oligotrophic ecosystem responses and biogeochemical feedbacks to climate change
Are the oceans turning into deserts? Rising temperature, increasing surface stratification, and decreasing vertical inputs of nutrients are expected to cause an expansion of warm, nutrient deplete ecosystems. Such an expansion is predicted to negatively affect a trio of key ocean biogeochemical features: phytoplankton biomass, primary productivity, and carbon export. However, phytoplankton communities are complex adaptive systems with immense diversity that could render them at least partially resilient to global changes. This can be illustrated by the biology of the Prochlorococcus “collective.” Adaptations to counter stress, use of alternative nutrient sources, and frugal resource allocation can allow Prochlorococcus to buffer climate-driven changes in nutrient availability. In contrast, cell physiology is more sensitive to temperature changes. Here, we argue that biogeochemical models need to consider the adaptive potential of diverse phytoplankton communities. However, a full understanding of phytoplankton resilience to future ocean changes is hampered by a lack of global biogeographic observations to test theories. We propose that the resilience may in fact be greater in oligotrophic waters than currently considered with implications for future predictions of phytoplankton biomass, primary productivity, and carbon export.