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58: Surface Weather Affects Life at Bottom of the Sea

By Megan Mansell WilliamsJanuary 3, 2005 6:00 AM


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A study published in July reveals that surface weather conditions have a dramatic impact on creatures that live at the bottom of the sea.

For 14 years, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, used a camera on a sled to study a stretch of seafloor 2 1/2 miles down. They compared the numbers of sea cucumbers and other marine life present each season with available air pressure, temperature, and other climate data and found a striking correlation. Within a year or two of a major climatic event from either El Niño or La Niña, life in the deep was drastically altered. The numbers of individuals of each species radically went up or down.

Sediment samples echoed this result, as the amount of muck on the bottom shifted in time with the weather. That muck, researcher Henry Ruhl says, is actually food—a nourishing blend of feces and dead plankton that fall from surface waters. But climatic fluctuations may disrupt or augment this flow, causing some species to go bust while others flourish.

More study is needed to evaluate the threat of long-term warming and how it might affect ecosystems on the ocean floor, Ruhl says. “If global warming strengthens, increases, or even decreases El Niño, then it could impact the deep sea.”

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