A marine alga in the Atlantic Ocean is thriving beyond scientists’ predictions, suggesting that increases in carbon dioxide levels -- thought to be one of the major causes of global warming -- are creating fast environmental changes, scientists at Johns Hopkins University reported. From 1965 to 2010, the level of single-celled coccolithophores has increased tenfold, disproving a previous theory that such organisms would decrease with rising ocean acidity.

Scientists have yet to determine what exactly the increase in this type of phytoplankton means, or if it is a good or a bad thing for the Earth, a news release from the university said. The results do suggest ecosystems are changing at a more rapid rate than previously thought, and the models used to measure the effects of climate change may not be adequate.

"Something strange is happening here, and it's happening much more quickly than we thought it should," Anand Gnanadesikan, a Johns Hopkins associate professor and one of the study's five authors, said in a statement. “What is worrisome is that our result points out how little we know about how complex ecosystems function."

RTR33FO2 Scientists Jens Ehn (left) and Christie Wood scoop water from melt ponds on sea ice in the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Ocean July 10, 2011. Scientists punched through the sea ice to find waters richer in phytoplankton than any other region on earth. Phytoplankton, the base component of the marine food chain, were thought to grow in the Arctic Ocean only after sea ice had retreated for the summer. Scientists now think that the thinning Arctic ice is allowing sunlight to reach the waters under the sea ice, catalyzing the plant blooms where they had never been observed. Photo: NASA Handout/Reuters

The analysis of coccolithophores is part of a survey of plankton that has been going on since the 1930s. Gnanadesikan has run models in the past to see how phytoplankton respond to changes in carbon dioxide, but the responses weren't as striking as the increases shown in the recent survey, the Independent reported. Such a strong increase of coccolithophores makes Gnanadesikan worry for the future.

So it makes me wonder what we've missed, and whether other surprises in the works may be less benign,” Gnanadesikan said, according to the Independent.

Coccolithophores have been abundant in warmer periods of history between ice ages. Because of the rise of coccolithophores now, it could indicate a bigger climate change is going on, said William Balch, senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in Maine, the Independent reported.