Stunning view of a bloom from space

By Phil Plait | January 14, 2012 7:00 am

Almost exactly one year ago, I posted a beautiful picture of a phytoplankton bloom as seen from space. And here’s another one, and it’s way, way more spectacular!

Holy wow! [Click to enalgaenate.]

This shot of a bloom in the southern Atlantic Ocean was taken by the ESA’s Envirosat, which — duh — is designed to observe our environment. In this case, scientists keep a keen eye on phytoplankton blooms: while this bloom is breathtaking and gorgeous, many can be hazardous. Besides producing toxins that can harm sea life, they can also consume more oxygen in the water than usual, which is obviously tough on any life in the area. The color of the bloom can be found quickly using satellite imagery like this, and the algae species determined. Also, phytoplankton are sensitive to some climate changes, so observing them can act as a "canary in the coal mine" for climate change.

Sometimes, the best view of the Earth around us is from above. And sometimes that view is amazing, but a reminder that our ecosystem is a dynamic balance… and it’s best that we understand all the forces that can upset that equilibrium.

Tip o’ the petri dish to Alan Boyle on Google+. Image credit: ESA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Envisat, ESA, phytoplankton

Comments (21)

  1. Pepijn

    Very beautiful. Is that false colour, or does it really look like that from space?

  2. Jim Howard

    Beautiful shot! However, I’m a bit confused by the statement “…they can also consume more oxygen in the water than usual…” I’ve always been under the impression that they fixed carbon from CO2 in the water and produced O2 rather than consuming it. Could someone set me straight on this please.

  3. Renee

    That’s an amazing picture, thanks!

    Unfortunately, as for the “canary in the coal mine” thing, we seem to live in a world littered with dead canaries, but the people in charge just close their eyes and hold their noses against the stench.

  4. dcortesi

    @Jim Howard, right, from the linked article: “These microscopic organisms are the base of the marine food chain, and play a huge role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the production of oxygen in the oceans. By helping to regulate the carbon cycle, phytoplankton are important to the global climate system.”

    I’m curious why the figure-8 form? Per the link from the link, this is “about 600km East of the Falkland Islands,” where, according to google maps, there is no land at all. So it isn’t swirling around two islands as it appears. Around under-sea peaks?

  5. Wzrd1

    @#2, Jim, you forget that included in the groups of plankton are zooplankton, which consume oxygen. Overall, the vast majority of phytoplankton are oxygen producers (except at night, when they consume oxygen), the zooplankton compete with them and balance them out. Problems arise when one group predominates over another, typically where rivers discharge into the sea and are loaded with fertilizer runoff. Then, equilibrium is broken and massive blooms of harmful (by toxin production) phytoplankton can proliferate.
    Indeed, there are now closed season times for fishing in large regions away from estuaries, due to toxins produced by blooms that occur annually. That was due to saxitoxin and a few other toxins building up in both shellfish and predatory fish, resulting in waves of human poisonings from consuming the contaminated fish.

    @#3, Renee, all too true. At least they don’t behave like Vlad the impaler when someone complains about the smell!

    @4, dcortesi, perhaps vortices are formed by opposing flows of currents? Rayleigh-Taylor instability due to differing salinity of the water at that location? Hard to tell without knowledge of the conditions in that area…

  6. Cassie

    Not going to get all ‘sciency

  7. Virginia

    @Jim Howard

    There are two ways a phytoplanktonic bloom can affect negatively the oxygen concentration: First of all, the high concentration on the surface prevents the sunlight from going through the water, so there is less photosyntesis (which is the process that produces oxygen) in the lower layers of water. Also, and most important, the excess of organic matter enhances the activity of decomposing organisms, and those use oxygen in their methabolism, so the oxygen concentration in the end is lower than it should be.

    Hope it helps!

  8. Jim Howard

    @Wzrd1 & Virginia – thanks…big help

  9. ceramicfundamentalist

    kind of looks like the swirls in jupiter’s atmosphere. i’m not implying anything, just saying…

  10. Blargh

    ceramicfundamentalist: don’t make me post a Giorgio Tsoukalos macro!

  11. Kim

    @Jim Howard, phytoplankton (and plants) do produce oxygen during the day, when they’re photosynthesizing. But they use oxygen for respiration just like we do, and at night, they’re not producing any. Once the cells die, the bacteria that decompose them use oxygen as well. So during the day, you’ll see spikes in oxygen levels, but at night and at the end of the bloom, oxygen levels crash because more is being used than produced. Very interesting picture.

  12. Checkmate1

    Linked article notes a resolution of 300m.
    I’m thinking this shot covers a LOT of area.
    Just how big is this bloom? Many tens of kilometers?

  13. DLM

    Seconding #12.

    You’ve posted several interesting ground shots of blooms and other ocean phenomenon. All without scale. Same with some of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and other shots.

    To apply an old SF story to this… We all remember the ’70s UFO show. In one episode they had a spy satellite follow an alien home. And for some reason (don’t remember the details) they lost the distance information. So it had all sorts of photographs and they couldn’t be interpreted. I remember the denouement had a camera zoomed in one one of the women’s stockings and you couldn’t identify them until given a scale.

    Scale helps. Otherwise it’s just a pretty abstract picture. So PLEASE try to give us a scale on these photos.


  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ DLM : Agreed. A scale for this would be pretty helpful and appreciated. :-)

    BTW. Would that “70’s UFo show” be a Twilight Zone episode by any chance? Sounds like one a bit.

    @6. Cassie : “Not going to get all ‚Äėsciency”

    Um, isn’t there more you were going to say? Oh & what’s wrong with getting sciencey? Far as I’m concerned I’m happy for folks to go all sciencey anytime they want! ūüėČ

    @9. ceramicfundamentalist : “kind of looks like the swirls in jupiter‚Äôs atmosphere ..”

    Jupiter – or Neptune or Ouranos given the respective planetary colours? ūüėČ

    Good pic there – anyone else getting the pareidolia effect with the figure 8 and ) curve on the centre left making a phytoplankon emoticon? ūüėČ

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @3. Renee :

    Unfortunately, as for the ‚Äúcanary in the coal mine‚ÄĚ thing, we seem to live in a world littered with dead canaries, but the people in charge just close their eyes and hold their noses against the stench.

    Yep the evidence is continuing to build up getting ever more overwhelmingly conclusive that Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) is a stark reality. See for example :

    For the latest climate crock interviewing climatologists on sea level rise and the emerging hockey stick there.

    Then there’s the worrying permafrost melting in the Arctic region and the inflammable consequences as dramatically shown here :

    Plus it should be hitting home in the USA too when you look at this :

    among other things.

    But who *is* in charge in nations run for the the people by the people?

    Our leaders are elected – and when the evidence finally makes climate denialism impossible will it be too late? Reminds me of HG Wells quote on our future being a race between education and catastrophe.

  16. David in England

    Just to say I vividly remember the UFO episode and scene mentioned by DLM, and in particular, Gabrielle Drake’s wonderful legs (along with the rest of her).

    Indeed, as I was enduring Puberty at the time, that scene, for many reasons, is etched into me.

    I even recall that Gerry Anderson’s puppetry helped me differentiate between Vertical and Horizontal by Thunderbird One’s launch procedure…..Scott Tracy saying “switching to horizontal flight…”.

  17. Bubba

    Coriolis in effect!

  18. Blargh

    Messier Tidy Upper: Ugh, Greenman. I can’t in good conscience forward his work to people. Why? Because I’ve checked out his “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” blog.

    While what I’ve seen of his actual climate change videos has been good… he also posts some absolutely apalling pseudoscience on his blog. When it comes to anything nuclear or radiation-related, the guy uncritically posts stuff that’s made me literally spit coffee on my monitor when I saw it (followed by what can only be described as the Morbo “WINDMILLS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!” reaction).

  19. DLM

    @ Messier Tidy Upper
    It was the short lived British series UFO which ran in the US in the early 70’s. The episode was titled Close Up. I believe it is out on DVD now. And that Phil has mentioned the show in some of his old posts (not going to hunt for them, too much to do and too little time).

    I don’t remember Twilight Zone doing an episode like this. Though they did a lot of strange UFO episodes. (e.g. the tiny flying saucer and the giant “hill billy” woman — the flying saucer was from the USA)

    @ David in England
    Ah yes. Her legs. :) Which helped get puberty going…

  20. @ ^ DLM : Ok. Cheers. :-)

    @19. Blargh : Fair enough then. I’ve only very occassionally been on Greenman3610’s blog as opposed to his Youtube channel & I don’t recall seeing anything too outrageous. His climate stuff is excellent though I think – I love his youtube ‘Climate Crocks’ series & nobody’s perfect. I can think of quite a few brilliant entertaining people with major blind spots – eg. Richard Dawkins with sexism, Randi, Penn & Teller with AGW etc .. & so while we may disagree with those on some things I’ll still appreciate what they’ve done in other areas. Similar case here maybe?

    Still I’ll try and keep that in mind in future.


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