Phytoplankton bloom

By Phil Plait | January 2, 2011 7:13 am

So yesterday I spent several hours rearranging my office and had a pile of other stuff to do, keeping me pretty busy throughout the day. So instead of some deeply insightful science post or lengthy discussion of skepticism, I’ll simply show you this beautiful image of a phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Patagonia:

[Click to unmicroorganismenate]

This was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite, designed to study the Earth’s oceans. This isn’t really a true-color picture, since seven different colors were used to make it (though there is one available closer to natural colors). But it’s still pretty. And useful scientifically; blooms like this happen when there’s a confluence of various factors, like currents, nutrients, sunlight, and of course the plankton themselves, so scientists can use these blooms to study conditions in the water. And since about half the planet’s supply of oxygen is created by photosynthesis by these little guys, blooms are useful in a more basic way, too!

Image credit: Norman Kuring, NASA’s Ocean Color website

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Aqua, phytoplankton

Comments (26)

Links to this Post

  1. Fitoplancton en el Sur Argentino. | Pablo Della Paolera | January 2, 2011
  1. Makes me wanna stick my face in the ocean and take a deep breath.

    Good thing I have excellent impulse control.

  2. I love how the eddies look like storms on Jupiter!

  3. Gary Ansorge

    Oh no, the planets ecosystem is still trying to do its thing, making oxygen and food.

    Some conservative religionists are just weird. It seems they’re now saying that anyone who promotes planetary health above profit is an instrument of Satan.

    http://www.care2.com/causes/global-warming/blog/environmentalism-is-deadly-says-evangelical-alliance/

    Welcome to the war between the old brain structures and the new,,,

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8228192/Political-views-hard-wired-into-your-brain.html

    Is YOUR anterior cingulate large or small??? If you’re reading this blog, it’s almost certainly large,,,

    Gary 7

  4. Anonymous

    Let me guess : phytoplankton is blooming due to Global Warming ?

  5. Gary Ansorge

    4. Anonymous

    “phytoplankton is blooming due to Global Warming ?”

    “blooms like this happen when there’s a confluence of various factors, like currents, nutrients, sunlight, and of course the plankton themselves, ”

    Funny, I see no mention of global warming here. Perhaps you’re just inserting whatever bias yanks you?

    People who call themselves anonymous seem to have a poor self image and very little imagination.
    Now, Naked Bunny With A whip has imagination AND a cool self image. Love it,,,

    Gary 7

  6. At first I thought this picture was going to be another picture of how the oil spread along the coast of the gulf. :)

  7. Say unmicroorganismenate 5 times fast. Sorry – Easily amused.

    @Trebuchet – I was thinking the same thing. I love how our universe shows us how the physics works the same in different places and ways. I get all “awed” on that.

  8. It is a beautiful picture, to be sure. And potentially a good thing as these blooms do produce oxygen during daylight hours, but before we get up and celebrate we should consider the longterm effects of a bloom like this and the cause of it as well.

    Dead zones are certainly not something to cheer about, yeah?

    (I’m a PhD student in the Biological Sciences… I’m not an anti-environmentalist or global warming denier or anything.. just pointing out that there are often two sides to any imbalance in the ecosystem :) )

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_zone_(ecology)

  9. Levi in NY

    Hooray for oxygen!

  10. I agree with Jordan Yaron. When I see algae blooms, my first thought is that it is not a good thing, because they happen a lot in the lakes around where I live and take the oxygen and block the light so that fish and creatures can’t live there anymore. I’m sure they’re a natural part of the ecosystem, but there’s been an increase of large blooms due to fertilizer and other such chemicals being dumped in the lakes.

  11. RwFlynn

    Yeah algae blooms can be pretty (like fire is pretty), but these algae blooms consume much more oxygen than they produce. The ultimate consequence of these are “dead-zones,” where the water’s oxygen disappears and chokes the life out of the area. Google the phrase “dead-zone” and you’ll get a much nastier picture. Their effects are particularly acute in freshwater systems where the Nitrogen and Phosphorus based fertilizers pour in from all sides with only one single outlet — if any at all. I just gave a presentation about this problem in my local watershed (the Chesapeake Bay) for my Environmental Science class a few weeks ago ago. It was pretty depressing to research, to be honest.

    Man, I feel like such a Debbie downer now. :|

    Oh, and as far as this relates to global warming (saw it mentioned earlier), it doesn’t. Although, it’s still (usually) anthropogenic and a big problem for anyone who likes fish or clear water. But that means it’s something we can fix, right? :D

  12. QuietDesperation
  13. Mike G

    Dead zones are a major problem, but this has nothing to do with them. There are no oceanic dead zones documented in Patagonia. This is a natural and regularly occurring coccolithophore bloom resulting from deep water upwelling at the continental shelf. To get an idea of scale, the bloom in the picture is larger than the entire Gulf of Mexico! There are even more spectacular examples that regularly occur in the North Atlantic and Bering Sea.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Oh that blooming phytoplankton! ;-)

  15. noen

    RwFlynn said
    “Yeah algae blooms can be pretty (like fire is pretty), but these algae blooms consume much more oxygen than they produce.”

    Plankton are not blue-green algae which is probably what you’re thinking of. They are plants (and some animals) and they really do produce O2. All plants do. Blue-green algae are bacteria and produce neurotoxins. Their decaying bodies consume O2.

    Only 2% of phytoplankton are harmful.


    Phil said:
    “about half the planet’s supply of oxygen is created by photosynthesis by these little guys”

    My understanding is that it is 50 to 90 percent with the real percentage being unknown. If we are very unlucky we may just find out.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @#15 Do I need to explain that ‘blooming’ is a very mild (think Ned Flanders-esque) & rather archaic “obscenity” much like “flaming” or “wretched” or “dratted?” If only I could convey tone of voice..

    Oh & while women stereotypically love flowers I don’t think too many ladies would be impressed if you gave them a phytoplankton bloom for whatever occassion! ;-)

    @8. Non-Believer : Say unmicroorganismenate 5 times fast. Sorry – Easily amused.

    Well, I liked it. :-)

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    So yesterday I spent several hours rearranging my office and had a pile of other stuff to do, keeping me pretty busy throughout the day.

    Not too hung over from a big New Year’s Eve still then, BA? ;-)

    Hope you had a good ‘un. :-)

  18. RwFlynn

    @ #16, Neon.

    Haha, I know next to nothing about phytoplankton, so I guess I just saw what I knew. The rest was probably sleep deprivation or something like that. Sorry bout that. :D Happens sometimes.

  19. Mike G

    Noen, not to pick on you, but there’s a lot wrong with what you said.

    Any organism that lives suspended in the water column and can’t swim against a 1 kt current is plankton. That includes blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria, which are some of the most significant members of the plankton. In fact, Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, which are planktonic cyanobacteria, are thought to be the two most abundant organisms on the planet. Since they’re photosynthetic, they’re usually lumped in with the phytoplankton which is not a taxonomic group, but an ecological guild. They’re definitely included among the phytoplankton for the purposes of the oft-repeated statement that phytoplankton are responsible for about 50% of the world’s oxygen, since Prochlorococcus alone is thought to account for about 20-25% of the world total.

    Also, although phytoplankton are sometimes described as plants, they aren’t. None of them are from the plant kingdom. They’re algae and bacteria, which are members of several other different kingdoms.

    As for oxygen consumption vs. production, I’m not exactly sure what you meant, but just to clarify- Animals never produce oxygen, since they by definition are not photosynthetic (though some animals like corals do harbor symbiotic algae that photosynthesize and produce oxygen). In the case of phytoplankton, at least as long as the algae or bacteria are alive and getting their energy from photosynthesis rather than heterotrophy (eating things)- some species can do either/or, they will produce more oxygen than they consume. It’s the respiration of heterotrophic bacteria feeding on the dead phytoplankton that reduces the oxygen levels and produces the dead zones.

    Finally, although a very small number of cyanobacteria do produce neurotoxins, they still produce oxygen as well (and it’s still more than they consume) and they aren’t the group generally responsible for toxic algae blooms. Most of the neurotoxic algae are dinoflagellates.

  20. noen

    @ Mike G – I did not know that plankton was not a taxonomic group. I thought that blue-green algae, which I knew were bacteria, would not be in the same category as plankton (or what I thought was plankton proper). oops.

    “As for oxygen consumption vs. production, I’m not exactly sure what you meant”

    I meant that the precess of decay consumes O2. But that happens in the water column so while they are alive plankton contribute to the Earth’s O2.

  21. BillC

    So – this is a phytoplankton bloom then. I take it that the upwelling is occurring to the south and the nutrients brought up from the depths are responsible for an increase in population. The current, which is delineated by these organisms, is flowing to the north, so it is the Malvinas / Falkland current (Oh yeh. I did a search – “Patagonian Atlantic currents” you have to get past the “current population studies of the Patagonian toothfish” [what a great log-in name].) The dark water between the green bands is the result of warmer water from the Brazil current that flows south along the coast being entrained. The islands to the south are the Falklands.
    . Comparing the photo in natural color to this, it looks like the natural color and contrast have been enhanced rather than having been replaced by seven other colors (when you increase contrast you inevitably increase color saturation). My next question was also answered – the color would imply that these are coccolithophorids. Do the nutrients consist of such things as phosphorus and calcium carbonate or are they more complex stuff like organic material?

    Yeh, ain’t it wonderful fluid dynamics work the same on Jupiter and Earth – and on stars as well but the Reynolds Number of ionized gasses at star temps and pressures has to be astronomical. :-)

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    @20. Mike G :

    Animals never produce oxygen, since they by definition are not photosynthetic.

    Well on our planet anyhow. Then there’s Zhaan from Farscape :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhaan#Zhaan

    &

    http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=WvcteC7ZOxc&feature=related

    and her fellow Delvian’s to consider! ;-)

    Oh & the Vervoids :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_of_the_Vervoids

    &

    http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=hGqod94huVg

    To consider too! ;-)

  23. Mike G

    Phosphorus, nitrogen, and silica are the main nutrients that are depleted in most surface waters and prevent phytoplankton growth. Iron can also be an important micronutrient in some areas where these other nutrients aren’t limiting, which is why some groups have experimented with iron fertilization as a way of creating phytoplankton blooms and sequestering carbon.

    At least for the time being, CaCO3 is saturated in surface waters, so isn’t limiting. In fact, it’s deep water that’s undersaturated with CaCO3. This is important because ocean acidification is moving the saturation horizon shallower and towards the equator. In the very near future (less than 50 years) this is expected to cause significant issues for some groups of calcifiers, particularly those that use the aragonite form of CaCO3. CaCO3 will become limiting to them. Interestingly, at least some coccolithophores in the lab actually seem to do better under these conditions for reasons that aren’t completely understood yet.

  24. Dunc

    @20. Mike G :

    Animals never produce oxygen, since they by definition are not photosynthetic.

    Well on our planet anyhow. Then there’s Zhaan from Farscape :

    Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan is not an animal, she’s a plant.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Dunc : A plant for who? ;-)

    Nah, Zhaan’s totally her own person and pretty much animal far as I can see! 8)

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