Rising sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic are likely to be behind a recent surge in cases of diarrhoeal diseases from marine bacteria in northern Europe and the US east coast, a new study says.
In their analysis that goes back to 1958, the researchers show that levels of Vibrio bacteria – which can cause illness in humans and even death – have been increasing as sea surface temperatures rise.
Further ocean warming as a result of climate change could exacerbate this spread of marine bacteria, the researchers say, potentially bringing more human infections in future.
Some of these bacteria cause sickness in people and animals. Humans pick them up by consuming water or seafood that carries the bacteria, or through cuts in the skin when swimming.
The most well-known Vibrio is cholera, a diarrhoeal disease that can cause severe dehydration and death if not treated.
This study considers other strains of Vibrio bacteria, such as Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which cause similar, though usually less severe, symptoms. These types of illness are known collectively as “vibrosis”, which can lead to complications, such as blood poisoning.
Previous research has linked outbreaks of Vibrio infections around the world to warm sea surface temperatures. Warmer conditions mean a longer summer window for Vibrio bacteria to grow and a greater chance of their survival. This conclusion has been reached in studies of Chile, Peru, Israel and the Baltic states.
The new study, just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that a warming Atlantic Ocean is the main reason for an “unprecedented” number of Vibrio cases in North Atlantic countries in recent years. This includes a spate of cases contracted by swimmers during the European summer heatwave in 2006.
One of the main limitations for scientists trying to work out how ocean warming is affecting Vibrio bacteria is the availability of data.
Bacteria are typically measured by microbiologists by collecting and analysing water samples, says lead author Dr Luigi Vezzulli, an associate professor in microbiology at the University of Genoa. However, as he explains to Carbon Brief, this isn’t without difficulty:
Vezzulli and his colleagues found a way round this problem by instead analysing samples of tiny marine creatures called zooplankton, on which Vibrio bacteria tend to hitch a ride.
Scientists have been collecting samples of plankton in the North Atlantic since 1958 via the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey. The CPR actually gets its name from the instrument that, when towed behind ships, collects plankton over huge areas of ocean.
Using the samples from nine locations – shown in the map below – the researchers analysed the DNA of the preserved plankton to create a record of how Vibrio bacteria numbers have changed over the past six decades.
The findings show that concentrations of the different Vibrio bacteria have increased in line with rising sea surface temperatures (SSTs) for eight of the nine North Atlantic locations.
The only exception was at Newfoundland. This is likely because, despite a warming ocean, SSTs in this region still average around 7C, the paper says, which is a bit cold for most Vibrio bacteria.
You can see how sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic have changed over the 21st century in the map below. Coastal regions of western Europe and Canada have warmed the most – by as much as 1.5C in some places, as shown by the red shading. Vezzulli says it’s clear that SSTs and Vibrio bacteria are linked:
Marine bacteria in a time of climate change
As the North Atlantic has warmed and concentrations of Vibrio bacteria have increased, the number of Vibrio infection cases in northern Europe and the US Atlantic coast have also risen, the paper says.
There could be several reasons for this, the researchers note, such as people being more likely to go out swimming in warm conditions. But the data suggest that the number and spread of Vibrio bacteria in the water is a strong factor.
This means the rising SSTs could be leading to more Vibrio infections in humans, the paper says:
Therefore, the continued rise in global SSTs in future years may exacerbate the growth and spread of Vibrio bacteria, the researchers conclude.
The study is a “stunning collaboration that integrates major disciplines, including climate, oceanography, microbiology and public health,” says Prof Drew Harvell, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, who wasn’t involved in the study. She tells Carbon Brief:
Another conclusion from the study is that better monitoring for Vibrio infections may be necessary, Vezzulli says:
This means that doctors and hospitals in European countries are not currently required to inform their government when they treat someone with a Vibrio infection. More comprehensive data collection on Vibrio cases would help scientists keep tabs on how these diseases are being affected by climate change, Vezzulli concludes.
Update: This article was updated on 08/08/16 to remove references to cholera as the study refers only to non-cholera Vibrio infections.
Main image: Triathlon training – athlete swimming. Credit: microgen/E+/Getty Images.
Vezzulli, L. et al. (2016) Climate influence on Vibrio and associated human diseases during the past half-century in the coastal North Atlantic, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1609157113
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.