NASA Satellite Photographs Massive Phytoplankton Bloom in Barents Sea


Photo by NASA

A NASA satellite has sent down an image of a phytoplankton bloom stretching across the Barents Sea, located north of Norway and Russia. The bloom is over 500 miles long and several hundred miles wide. While it is a common occurrence for the area during August, it is rare to get such a spectacular view. As Yale e360 writes, "The milky blue color suggests the presence of coccolithophores, a microscopic plankton containing white calcium carbonate, which when viewed through ocean water appears bright blue. In the Arctic, the annual spring phytoplankton blooms, triggered by melting sea ice, play a key role in the region's marine ecology."

There are many types of phytoplankton, but coccolithophores are a type that create a calcite shell, the remains of which form chalk. It is this calcite shell that has had researchers watching this type of phytoplankton more closely, due to the threat of ocean acidification which can cause a weakening of shells. Luckily, researchers have found that the coccolithophores are fairly resistant to dissolution, and could hold up to ocean acidification better than we thought.

However, the resistance won't last forever. Coccolithophores start to succumb when pH levels reach about 7.8, and researchers project that due to carbon emissions, we're on track to reach an ocean with a pH level of 7.8 before the end of this century. This is a very big deal, since much of the marine food chain, from tiny fish to whales, depend on phytoplankton as a key food source.

While the word "bloom" might trigger nervous reactions, blooms are actually vitally important. Interesting to note, blooms that are bright green are the result of cyanobacteria, known as blue-green algae, whereas the more toxic blooms are from types that take on a red or brown color and cause "red tides" which can lead to dead zones in the ocean and other problems such as illness among animals higher up on the food chain. However, these bright green blooms in the north, as pictured here, are an important part of the food chain and something welcomed by many marine species -- as long as they occur at the right time.
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Tags: Animals | Ecology | Oceans