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Earth is On Track to Lose Much of Its Distinct Blue Color Due to Climate Change

There is no shortage of reasons to be upset over global climate change, whether it's the extreme weather or threatened wildlife that are resulting from our warming planet...

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There is no shortage of reasons to be upset over global climate change, whether it's the extreme weather or threatened wildlife that are resulting from our warming planet, or the fact that any number of major coastal cities may end up under water during our lifetimes. So it's with regret that we deliver just a bit more bad news: climate change is also on track to change the Earth's distinct blue color.

Like a beaming sapphire in the Milky Way, Earth has long been considered the Blue Planet, though according to a brand new study out of MIT, that may change in just a few decades. The report claims that warming temperatures will likely cause the color of the ocean's surface to change dramatically at points all across the globe, due largely to how climate change is affecting the microscopic phytoplankton in the sea. 

There will be a "noticeable difference" in the color of up to 50 percent of the ocean in the next 80 years, according to Stephanie Dutkiewicz, the study's lead author and principal research scientist at MIT. As for what colors to expect to replace the beaming blue, it's predicted many sections of the ocean are going to get significantly darker. The change won't be immediate by any means, but 80 years is barely a blip when you consider Earth's 4.5 billion years old. 

To understand why this will likely happen, you have to understand a bit about how and why the ocean is currently the color it is. Essentially, the ocean's color depends on how sunlight interacts with what's in the water. Water alone absorbs almost all of the sunlight except for in the blue part of the spectrum, which is why it appears blue to the human eye. However, phytoplankton occupy large swaths of the ocean, and they absorb most of the blue portion of the spectrum, while less so in the green portion. That explains why parts of the ocean that are home to lots of phytoplankton (like the poles) appear a bit greener. However, a rise in water temperature will likely shift where phytoplankton will live, and thus, how the colors may shift.

“It could be potentially quite serious," said Dutkiewicz. "Different types of phytoplankton absorb light differently, and if climate change shifts one community of phytoplankton to another, that will also change the types of food webs they can support."

The researchers used a global temperature modeling system to predict how things might look if the water temperature warmed by three degrees Celsius by 2100 (which is what the study claims most scientists predict), and found the changes were most dramatic in the blue/green wavelengths. So, instead of the globe's blueish greens you see today in aerial shots of Earth, it's very likely the hue of the planet will get much darker in a matter of decades.

Though, to be fair, the color of Earth's water will probably be the least of our problems when you consider just how hot cities are expected to get by then. 

h/tThe Weather Channel


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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him @jwmcgauley.