Terrestrial Tour: The Ocean in Bloom

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Normal quantities of phytoplankton bloom can be helpful, but too much can kill ocean life.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/).

Story adapted from Image of the Day post by Kathryn Hansen: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/88340/phytoplankton-bloom-off-new-jersey
Images and animations are courtesy of NASA/GSFC, the MODIS Rapid Response Team, the NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio, the SeaWiFS Project, and ORBIMAGE
  • Image of bloom near Iceland courtesy of Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Group at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Assorted diatoms photo courtesy of NSF Polar Programs
  • Images of individual phytoplankton courtesy of Sharyn Hedrick, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
  • Hurricane animation courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
  • Haddock photo courtesy of NOAA
  • Photo of red tide in New Zealand courtesy of M. Godfrey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Photo of red tide in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, courtesy of M. Gaskings, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Photo of red tide off La Jolla, California, courtesy of Alejandro Diaz
  • Aqua satellite illustration courtesy of Reto Stöckli, NASA
  • Written by Tracy Vogel
  • Designed by Stephanie Smith
  • Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

The Earth from space. Title, The Ocean in Bloom
Text, North Carolina. Every spring, just as the land in the northern hemisphere is bursting into bloom, the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean come alive with color.
The change starts around March in the waters near Bermuda.
Iceland. It moves slowly northward to the edge of the Artic sea ice.
The ocean zone growing season is underway - the yearly North Atlantic phytoplankton bloom
The Ocean in Bloom. What is a phytoplankton bloom? What causes a bloom? Good and bad effects of blooms. Studying blooms from space.
France - Bay of Biscay
Phytoplankton (pronounced "FY-TOE-PLANK-TON") are microscopic, ocean-swelling plants.
A "bloom" is the explosive, spreading growth of this form of life.
The blue-green colors swirling through the ocean are enormous masses of billions of tiny organisms, so numerous they can be seen from space.
Phytoplankton come in several varieties.
Phytoplankton under a microscope. Text, Some are rigid and immobile.
Others use whip-like tails to swim.
Single-cell phytoplankton often clump together into clusters.
The blooms formed by these tiny plants can last anywhere from a few days to weeks.
What causes a bloom?
Barents Sea. Phytoplankton blooms develop when sunlight and nutrients become abundant.
Blooms occur naturally when dense, deep layers of ocean water, rich in nutrients like iron, phosphorus, and nitrogen, rise toward the surface.
Argentina. Tidal forces, winds, currents, and storms all helped to turn up the nutrient-rich waters from deep in the ocean.
Hurricane Simulation
Swirling white lines move over the ocean surface. Below, a funnel of bright blue bubbles stream upward.
The sun in the sky. Green and white dots along the ocean surface.
Text, Norway
Nutrient-rich waters then mingle with surface waters.
Phytoplankton live in surface waters, where they can absorb the sunlight they need for photosynthesis.
Like other plants, phytoplankton use the energy from light to fuse water and carbon dioxide into food, then release oxygen into the atmosphere.
In an animation, the sun's rays hit the ocean, along with CO2. O2 rises from the ocean, into the air.
Phytoplankton only live for a day or two.
When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, carrying with them the carbon dioxide they have absorbed.
This process removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and helps keep Earth's temperature stable.
Helping to keep atmospheric carbon and check isn't the only role phytoplankton play in their environment.
Good and bad effects of blooms.
Nova Scotia. Phytoplankton are vital to life in the ocean.
They are the base of the ocean food chain.
Fish eat them and Thrive when they are plentiful.
Phytoplankton blooms also cloud the water, which may help protect fish from predators.
Scientists have found that the timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Nova Scotia dramatically influences the survival of haddock from year to year.
The earlier the bloom, the more abundant the fish.
Even though many phytoplankton blooms are natural and essential for the health of ocean life and earth's climate,
not all blooms are normal or healthy
Baltic Sea
Flooding can wash nutrients from crop fertilizers and sewage into the ocean, spurring unnatural phytoplankton growth.
August 10
August 10, 2003, this thunderstorm flooded and arid section of Algeria.
August 11. Floodwaters wash debris, likely including sewage, into the Mediterranean Sea.
August 12. Phytoplankton immediately began growing on the runoff.
August 13. As the storm water spread into the sea, so did the new bloom.
Black Sea. When phytoplankton blooms grow too large, sealife can suffer.
As billions of phytoplankton died, bacteria Feast on their decomposing bodies and grow in numbers.
The enormous quantities of bacteria absorb oxygen from the water - oxygen other sea creatures need to live.
Gulf of Mexico. In the US, summer rains wash pollution into Coastal Waters, sparking a large phytoplankton bloom.
Each summer, the water at the mouth of the Mississippi River becomes a “dead zone.”
It has too little oxygen for sea life to survive.
This annual bloom produces one of the largest dead zones in the world, which is doubled in size over the last 20 years.
Three variations in color. Text, In addition, certain species of phytoplankton are toxic and can poison the water.
The "red tide," which can irritate skin in lungs, is an example of a toxic bloom.
The influence phytoplankton blooms have on life on Earth makes him an important subject of study.
Studying blooms from space
Satellites help monitor phytoplankton Blooms from above the Earth.
A NASA satellite helped monitor one phytoplankton blooms development in this region around Norway and Denmark.
Red shows high concentrations of toxic phytoplankton blamed for killing over 700 tons of farm-raised salmon in the Atlantic.
Satellites can detect what our eyes cannot.
One identified this developing bloom in South Africa, before it was visible, by measuring high concentrations of chlorophyll (shown in red).
Satellites can also help us make global connections.
Using satellite images and computer models, scientists have discovered that phytoplankton populations decrease when ocean temperatures increase.
This image, created with satellite data collected when ocean temperatures were warm, shows a near absence of phytoplankton along the equator.
However, when the waters cool, phytoplankton populations explode.
This image shows a massive bloom (green) spreading across the ocean during a cool period.
Though phytoplankton blooms have intrigued scientists for ages, much about their development is still unknown.
Satellites are helping scientists to better understand, predict, and advise the world about these huge biological events.
Credits, Produced by Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach. Images and animations are courtesy of NASA/GSFC, the MODIS Rapid Response Team, the NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio, the SeaWiFS Project, and ORBIMAGE, with exceptions. Music courtesy of Associated Production Music. Written by Tracy Vogel, Designed by Stephanie Smith