Phyt O'Plankton

By Phil Plait | May 11, 2012 10:21 am

I’ve written about pictures from space of ocean-borne phytoplankton blooms (see Related Posts below), but I recently saw a new one:

This one was new to me for two reasons. For one, I hadn’t seen one such a bloom off the coast of Ireland before — the three I’ve posted previously were south of the Equator. You can see the coast of Mayo County in Ireland there on the right.

Second, it was from a satellite I’d never heard of: SPOT-5. This is a European Space Agency satellite that observes the Earth to improve our understanding of oceanography and climatology. It has 10-meter resolution, meaning it can spot objects roughly the size of a small house.

The picture above shows the Earth in natural color plus infrared; the parts that look red are land-based vegetation, which reflects IR light strongly. That’s why the Emerald Isle looks vermillion. Or at least orange and pink.

Phytoplankton blooms are interesting; they’re sensitive to climate change, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on them. They also produce toxins that can poison the local life, and rob the water of oxygen, so observing them also helps local fishing and other sea-going ventures.

They’re also beautiful. And yet another reminder that what can be deadly here on Earth can be lovely from space. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but one that’s very common in nature.

Image credits: CNES/Spot Image/ESA

Related Posts:

An ear to the ocean
Stunning view of a bloom from space
Phytoplankton bloom

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures

Comments (14)

  1. Well at least now I don’t have to look up “vermillion.”

  2. CJSF

    SPOT-5 is one of the workhorses for us in the Earth observing business. It’s been operating for the better part of a decade now, I believe. Great pic!


  3. rick king

    i thought phytoplankton produce oxygen?

  4. First thing I saw was the scary blue skull face in the background. Once you see it you can’t “unsee” it!

  5. Ciaran

    Cool photo, haven’t seen it in any of the media here (Ireland).

    Just FYI: “the coast of Mayo County” should be “the coast of county Mayo”.

  6. Mark

    Yikes!! author never heard of SPOT-5? Eh, I will cut him a break on this one. In the Earth observing business my self (like #2). Some cool stuff out there from a plethora of vehicles that can be used to observe Earth changes. They should (and are to some extent, but not enough) be enlisted in great quantity to monitor climate on local and global scale.

  7. This is actually from June 2, 2006 and was a pretty amazing bloom. We got a good natural-color shot of it from NASA’s Aqua satellite:

  8. MKS

    The land looks like its covered in Martian red weed :3

  9. F89

    Uh oh…Why do I hear Plankton… “First the Ocean, tomorrow the world!!!! “

  10. @ ^ MKS : Great reference! :-)

    Except I think that “red weed” is actually land – Ireland to be precise! 😉

    @5. Ciaran :

    Just FYI: “the coast of Mayo County” should be “the coast of county Mayo”.

    Okay, um, does that actually make a difference – and do they have a county cricket team? 😉

    Co-incidentally enough, one of the local electorates neighbouring mine (Boothby – South Australia) is the named Mayo.

    @ 3. rick king asked : “I thought phytoplankton produce oxygen?”

    Yes, they do. In fact the wikipedia page on them now linked to my name here notes :

    Phytoplankton account for half of all photosynthetic activity on Earth. Thus phytoplankton are responsible for much of the oxygen present in the Earth’s atmosphere – half of the total amount produced by all plant life.

    They also form a key part of the food chain – but there can always be too much of a good thing. Well almost always! 😉

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wonder how much plastic is down there too? :-(

    Our oceans currently have some serious issues in that regard – see :

    There is a section of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the continental United States called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Within it, 100 million tons of plastic swirl in a vortex of currents. There is so much plastic in the water that it outnumbers zooplankton by six to one!

    (Quoted from the Facebook page that supplied that link including the Rise above plastics pledge. Fb links can sometimes by dodgy & not turn out as expected so I haven’t included that here – search it on FB.)

    See also :

    Which has more info & another youtube clip on this too.

    Whilst this link :

    is the spot for the wiki-basics on the SPOT satellites program. (Wonders how easy they are to spot in the sky?)

  12. Mike G

    i thought phytoplankton produce oxygen?

    They do, but they also consume it. During the day when they’re photosynthesizing they produce oxygen, but at the same time they’re also respiring, which consumes oxygen. Obviously photosynthesis stops at night when the light goes away, but the respiration continues consuming oxygen. Especially in cases of large blooms, this can cause biologically significant depletion of dissolved oxygen.

    However, I think Phil was actually referring to a different means by which algae blooms can deplete oxygen. This phenomenon, known as “dead zones” occurs when blooms occur in coastal areas (unlike what’s shown in the photo). The algae bloom, then die en masse and sink to the bottom. Bacteria then consume the dead algae, using up virtually all of the dissolved oxygen in the process. Any critters unlucky enough to be caught in the are will go belly up.

  13. Gary

    There are many species of phytoplankton, but relatively few produce toxins. Credit the toxic blooms to the dinoflagellates found mainly in coastal waters. Diatoms are a major primary producer in the oceans and they rarely produce ill effects.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (10) said:

    Okay, um, does that actually make a difference

    Yes. The one is correct and the other is wrong. For example, I live in County Durham (the original, nothing to do with North Carolina). The phrase “Durham county” would be pretty much meaningless, and would cause much mirth among locals if visitors were to use it.


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