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ERC

PALEOGENIE Report Summary

Project ID: 617313
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Periodic Report Summary 3 - PALEOGENIE (PAst Links in the Evolution of Ocean’s Global ENvIronment and Ecology)

Species do not live in total isolation to their surroundings, but adapt and ultimately, evolve, in relationship with other species as well as with their chemical and physical environment. In the ocean, this can be a two-way street – the conditions at the ocean surface affect the makeup of the plankton ecosystem, but at the same time, the particular species that are present can affect how efficiently organic matter (and with it carbon) is removed from the surface and transported to great depth in the ocean – a process that in turn influences the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hence climate. (Then climate in influences which plankton are there, which affects carbon cycling and CO2 ... in a chicken-and-egg sort of situation). Understanding this complex interlinked system is essential if we are to correctly interpret the geological record and how plankton and marine ecosystems recover from major environmental catastrophes (and make correct projections of the future ocean!).
The proposed project – ‘PALEOGENiE’ – is addressing these challenges by developing a unique computer model representation of what plankton and their ecosystems might have looked like, and functioned, in the geological past. The geological record of plankton – represented by invisible-to-the-naked-eye ‘nannofossils’ – will be analysed across several major geological events that we already know were characterised by major changes in climate and/or massive carbon release – events such as at the end of the Cretaceous (65 million years ago) when the Earth was hit by a giant asteroid, and an event occurring about 10 million years later (the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), when we have good evidence for a massive release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (similar to today perhaps?). We will then bring model and data together in a unique attempt to better understand how sensitive marine ecosystems are to global environmental change as well as how they recover. PALEOGENiE could ultimately lead to new insights into the future response of marine ecosystems to continued fossil fuel combustion.
To date, PALEOGENiE has created a novel new ecosystem and added this to a representation of global carbon cycling and climate. We have found that this combined model is capable of reproducing many of the key features of plankton productivity in the ocean today. Next, we will explore what happens when the Earth is disrupted by an asteroid impact (at end of the Cretaceous) or massive release of greenhouse gases (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum). We have also used basic high school maths and the multiplication of matrices (but in a rather powerful and efficient way on supercomputer-power chips) to calculate how the ocean circulates and moves dissolved nutrient and plankton cells around. Combining brute computing power with an advanced marine ecosystem model will then allow us to explore how life might evolve and adapt to global catastrophes.

Reported by

UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL
United Kingdom
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