Tag Archives: phytoplankton

Phytoplankton paints Bosphorus Strait in a stunning milky turquoise

An unexpected  “phytoplankton bloom”  has turned the normally dark blue waters of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world into a stunning turquoise. Istanbul residents were delighted with the bright and milky water, as they were quick to point out on social media.

The Bosphorus is the narrowest strait used for international navigation and separates continental Europe from Asia. NASA has been monitoring the sudden change in color of the water around straight and says phytoplankton is responsible.

Phytoplankton are microscopic marine algae that form the basis of most marine food webs. In a balanced ecosystem, they provide food for a wide range of sea creatures including whales, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish. These tiny organisms feed on sunlight and dissolved nutrients, all of which are in ample amount in the Bosphorus from rivers like the Danube and Dnieper.

An amazing shot taken by NASA's Aqua satellite shows an algae bloom in full swing around the Black Sea. Credit: Ocean Biology Processing Group/NASA.

An amazing shot taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite shows an algae bloom in full swing around the Black Sea. Credit: Ocean Biology Processing Group/NASA.

One of the most common types of phytoplankton around the Black Sea are coccolithophores, which are distinguishable by being plated with calcium carbonate — the stuff shells are made of. When they aggregate in large numbers, the phytoplankton acts like a reflective plate lending a milky appearance to the water that can be visible even from space.

“The May ramp-up in reflectivity in the Black Sea, with peak brightness in June, seems consistent with results from other years,” said Norman Kuring, an ocean scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Sometimes, plankton can make the water darker.

“It’s important to remember that not all phytoplankton blooms make the water brighter,” Kuring said. “Diatoms, which also bloom in the Black Sea, tend to darken water more than they brighten it.”

The coccolithophore in question is Emiliania huxleyiaccording to Berat Haznedaroglu, an environmental engineer, who claims rain events that carried nutrients from the Saharan desert to the Black Sea have created the optimal environment for the phytoplankton bloom. Such events happen annually, much to the delight of locals.

Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Oddly enough, phytoplankton thrive above natural oil seeps

Marine biologists study microbes in the waters above natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico stumbled upon something unexpected. They found phytoplankton, tiny organisms that comprise the bottom of the marine food chain, thrive in waters with low concentration oil. In some cases, the population is double that a couple miles off the oil seep sites.

Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Previously, researchers subjected  phytoplankton to various oil concentrations in the lab to test their sensitivity. Depending on the concentration, some cells collapsed while others survived. The researchers from the  Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) consortium are the first to show, however, that in some instances oil can actually help phytoplankton thrive.

It’s not yet clear how this happens, but most certainly it’s not the oil alone. Instead, it’s a combination of oil, bacteria and plankton. Somehow, the waters are more nutrient rich around these oil seeps, so the plankton can grow unchecked.

The team were tasked with investigating the interaction of oil seeps with marine life after the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster in 2010 spewed oil across 11,200 square kilometers. Armed with a better understanding of these processes, researchers can design better preemptive measures and action plans in case of a new spill.

Natural oil seeps are far more benign, though. Hydrocarbons leak out of the ground through fractures and sediments in the bottom of the ocean, similarly to how freshwater springs leak water to the surface. The seeps cover an area between 1 to 100 square km and only last for a couple of days. The concentration is far lower than water contaminated from an oil spill, but it’s still very noticeable. You can smell it.

Lead author Nigel D’Souza, then a postdoctoral researcher at Lamont, and colleagues used a ship in the Gulf of Mexico monitoring chlorophyll fluorescence. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis (about half of all oxygen on the planet is made by these tiny critters), and as a byproduct they emit this energy called chlorophyll fluorescence. So, by monitoring this energy you can get a rough idea of how large the phytoplankton population is. Each time the ship recorded above an oil seep, researchers saw a spike. Water samples and satellite imagery confirmed that the phytoplankton thrives in the oily water.

“This is the beginning of evidence that some microbes in the Gulf may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least at lower concentrations,” said Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and coauthor of the study. “In this case, we clearly see these phytoplankton are not negatively affected at low concentrations of oil, and there is an accompanying process that helps them thrive. This does not mean that exposure to oil at all concentrations for prolonged lengths of time is good for phytoplankton.”

Journal Reference: Elevated surface chlorophyll associated with natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico.


Ocean microorganisms can ‘seed’ clouds, research finds

Researchers have known for quite a while that microorganisms in the ocean can significantly affect the local weather but now, a new connection has been found between phytoplankton breakdown and cloud formation. This can lead to improved climate models and better weather prediction.

Waves splashing spread out organic components which can encourage cloud formation. Image via Wikipedia.

I just love mornings by the sea – the sun is starting to shine, the breeze is cooling you off, and the waves are splashing on in a monotonous and soothing movement. But there’s more than meets the eye in that water that the waves are splashing – scientists have proven that bacteria on the ocean’s surface can affect the molecular makeup of sea spray droplets.

Basically, bacteria break down phytoplankton, the ubiquitous photosynthesizing organisms that inhabit almost all oceans and seas. As they break it down, they release proteins, sugars and lipids which get trapped in water droplets, and these water droplets can be ejected into the atmosphere. Naturally, this raises the number of organic components in the atmosphere, which is important in cloud formation – several studies have attempted to link phytoplankton blooms with organic content in the atmosphere, but failed to do so conclusively. They then went to the lab to see exactly what the effects are.

They were especially interested by phytoplankton blooms, so that’s the condition they tried to recreate. They managed to bring some 13,000 liters (3,400 gallons) of California sea water into the lab, into a controlled ocean-atmosphere wave machine. Their first results showed that increased phytoplankton concentration did indeed lead to increased organic content, and that organic content controls and encourages cloud formation (to an extent).

“Sea spray aerosol (SSA) particles profoundly impact climate through their ability to scatter solar radiation and serve as seeds for cloud formation. The climate properties can change when sea salt particles become mixed with insoluble organic material formed in ocean regions with phytoplankton blooms. Currently, the extent to which SSA chemical composition and climate properties are altered by biological processes in the ocean is uncertain.”

The research also shows that the interactions between the oceanic aerosols, microorganisms and climate is much more complex than previously understood. It’s interactions like this one that makes climate modelling so complicate – the more interactions we can factor in, the more accurate the models get.

Here’s a very good video detailing the processes through which aerosols affect our climate:

Journal Reference: Xiaofei Wang  et al. Microbial Control of Sea Spray Aerosol Composition: A Tale of Two Blooms. DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.5b00148

Worth more in the oceans: fish save billions of dollars each year by storing CO2 in the oceans

Whenever you’re eating a fish or some other marine creature, think just for a moment that it may actually be worth more as a CO2 storing machine than a food.

First of all, let’s just make this clear: we’re unsustainably eating fish. If we continue current trends, we’ll soon be facing a massive fish crisis, as depicted in the image above. As you can see for yourself, there are virtually no more unexploited fish stocks, by now over a third of all fish stocks have already collapsed, and the situation is getting worse and worse every year. To add insult to injury, a new study has concluded that fish are actually worth more for the CO2 storing services they offer than on your plate.

By assigning a dollar value to carbon stored in ocean ecosystems, two recent scientific reports are attempting to make nations reconsider the true worth of their fishing activities.

The first one, conducted by the Global Ocean Commission, roughly estimates that fish and other aquatic life in the high seas absorb carbon dioxide which would otherwise cause damage between $74 billion to $222 billion every year. A more localized research showed that in the UK waters alone, the figure is $20 million every year.

But here’s the really awesome thing – the world’s fishing industry is worth $16 billion – way less value than the services which fish provide! Strictly from an economic point of view, it would be better to ban fishing altogether!

“Fish are actually really important in the global carbon cycle, and they’ve been rather neglected,” said Clive Trueman of the University of Southampton, lead author of the deep-sea fish study.

This study highlights once again the value of animals, and the damage we are causing overexploiting the planet’s resources – if we don’t start changing things, it will almost certainly come back to haunt us.

“I really think to use our oceans sensibly, we need to look at all the services that they provide and then find those that contribute to human welfare and well-being the most, and try to encourage that,” added Rashid Sumaila, professor and director of the fisheries economics research unit at the University of British Columbia, who co-authored the Global Ocean Commission report.

So how exactly do fish store CO2 in the oceans?

Phytoplankton, the ocean’s basic life form, from the bottom of the food chain, absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. But because phytoplankton swims close to the surface, if it reaches the surface, it reemits most of the CO2 back into the atmosphere – if it isn’t eaten by any other marine animals, that is. Fish come and eat the phytoplankton, but then again, they don’t really swim that deep either. That’s when the deep sea dwelling fish come into action – they come and eat the fish which ate the phytoplankton, taking the CO2 back to the depths of the oceans and storing it there.

“These big, bottom-feeding, predatory fish are basically capturing the moving animals and storing that carbon by killing them and keeping them at the bottom,” Trueman said. “It’s only once the carbon fixed by phytoplankton actually gets below about 100 to 200 meters that it’s not free to get back to the atmosphere.”

It’s amazing to think that recently, we had no idea this was happening. The services they are providing us are huge, and yet we knew nothing about them – and even now, we only understand the general mechanism.

“We really don’t know very much about them, and yet they’re doing something pretty useful for us,” Trueman said.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to understand more and act accordingly, protecting world fisheries – before it’s too late.




Icelandic volcanic eruption yields bad news for iron fertilization geoengineering

In one of the first articles I’ve ever written on ZME Science, all the way back in 2007 (has it really been 6 years? Wow!), I was telling you about an interesting plan of cooling global temperatures by fertilizing the world’s oceans with iron. This would in cause turn a phytoplankton explosion, which would suck up a lot of CO2 from the lower atmosphere. However, such plans have been given a significant blow.


A paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters analyzed the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which released large amounts of iron in the North Atlantic near Iceland. If we were to actually fertilize the oceans with iron, we’d be doing it pretty much in this way, so this was a great opportunity to test it out.

The researchers found that the iron fertilization effect quickly died out due to the rapid depletion of nitrate from the upper layers of the ocean, depriving the phytoplankton of nitrogen – a vital nutrient for their growth.

“The additional removal of carbon by the ash-stimulated phytoplankton was therefore only 15 to 20 per cent higher than in other years making for a significant, but short-lived change to the biogeochemistry of the Iceland Basin,” said study lead author Eric Achterberg of the National Oceanography Centre in the U.K.


So it does work, the phytoplankton boom takes place, but it’s unsustainable, and the effects are short lasted. This is consistent with previous studies conducted on the matter. A 2009 study published in Nature found that carbon uptake after iron fertilization was 80 times lower than expected.

“You might get a different response if you shock the system by dumping a lot of iron all at once,” Raymond Pollard of the National Oceanography Centre told Nature News at the time. “The effect will still be much smaller than some geoengineers would wish.”

However, other researchers were much harsher:

“Ocean iron fertilization is simply no longer to be taken as a viable option for mitigation of the CO2 problem,” Hein de Baar, an oceanographer at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel, was quoted as saying by Nature News.

So what does this mean, should we just cross this option out? Probably not; as said, the effect was significant, but short lasted, so if geoengineers could find a way to make it more sustainable, it still has potential, but at any rate, it has been dealt a big blow.

GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS. Article first published online : 14 MAR 2013, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50221

Massive algae bloom in Arctic region raises crucial questions

NASA announced a truly unexpected phenomena, observed under the shrinking Arctic ice: a massive algae bloom under the ice.

Not long ago, the life of this crucial plant seemed to suffer greatly, a worrying phenomena, as algae produces much of the world’s oxygen. The same year that NASA researchers launched the Icescape expedition to the Arctic, the world’s phytoplankton seemed to be in great trouble, disappearing at a rate of 1% for the past 100 years.

“A global decline of this magnitude? It’s quite shocking,” Daniel Boyce, Dalhousie University marine scientist and lead author of the 2010 study, told The Times.

The small algae go by their collective name: phytoplankton; it lies at the very foundation of the ecosystem, providing, aside from oxygen, the necessary nutrients for the entire food chain, so its dire times means dire times for every link of the chain; could this surprising bloom mark a turnaround for it? Does this change the situation for the entire picture ?

“The question becomes, if we take our current finding … does it change that global picture,” she said. “That’s one of the things the science team is going to have to look at. … It most certainly changes what we thought was happening in the Arctic.”

Also, linking things with global warming and local climate change, scientists still aren’t sure of this is good or bad.

”It’s premature to say if it’s good news or bad news,” Bontempi said. First scientists must get their arms around this discovery — which has been likened to finding a rain forest growing beneath the Arctic ice — an occurrence scientists “never ever could have anticipated in a million years,” she said.

Indeed, every earlier study indicated phytoplankton populations shrinking significantly, and no one ever thought they could find something like this under the ice – nor do they know how long this has been happening. It’s not that NASA is blind or that the satellites monitoring the area aren’t functioning properly, it’s the fact that the ice was really thick – ‘thanks’ to global warming, that problem was solved.

So yes, the phytoplankton seems to thrive under the Arctic ice for quite a while. What does this mean? Why is it happening, especially as one can only wonder how the plants are getting their necessary light? Our planet is truly fascinating. Things are happening here that we never even could have imagined.

Fool’s gold is ocean’s fertilizer

Bacteria and small plants at the bottom of the ocean require significant quantities of iron to survive and grow, just like us humans do. But their situation is extremely different, and they can’t just opt for an iron rich diet. So where does their iron come from ?



Pyrite, or fool’s gold (as it is sometimes called) is a nice to look at mineral that is made out of sulphur and iron, and new research suggests that it is responsible for fertilizing the oceanfloor through the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Researchers already knew that pyrite comes from these vents, but they thought it was all about solid particles which just quietly settled on the ocean floor.

Now, reserchers from the University of Delaware, in collaboration with other scientists have shown that in fact the diameter of these emissions are 1,000 times smaller than that of a human hair, and due to their extremely small size, they are dispersed through the ocean, as opposed to lying down on the ground.

Barbara Ransom, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research, called the discovery “very exciting.”.

“These particles have long residence times in the ocean and can travel long distances from their sources, forming a potentially important food source for life in the deep sea,” she said.

The thing with pyrite is that it doesn’t rapidly interact with the oxygen in the water (or in layman’s terms, the iron in it doesn’t rust), which allows it to remain in its actual form for a longer period of time, in which it travels all around the place.

“As pyrite travels from the vents to the ocean interior and toward the surface ocean, it oxidizes gradually to release iron, which becomes available in areas where iron is depleted so that organisms can assimilate it, then grow,” Luther said.

The growth and wellbeing of tiny plants (phytoplankton) affect the atmospheric oxygen and carbon levels, and the whole oceanic ecosystem relies on them.

NASA satellite shows awesome phytoplankton bloom

When NASA satellites and biology come together in the same sentence, you just know something awesome is going to come up; this was the case with a phytoplankton bloom observed off the coast of Argentina. Two strong currents stirred the needed combination of nutrients, sald and microscopic organisms, and then sunlight did all the rest required to create such a spectacular bloom. Click here for the BIG picture – which I highly recommend

Without direct analysis of the water it is impossible to certainly say what the microorganisms are, but researchers have a pretty good idea – they suspect it’s a species of single celled plants that form from calcite scales (coccolithophores). This kind of bloom is not very rare, but this one is very nice to look at indeed – some work has been done in this direction.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image on December 21, 2010, and used seven different spectral bands to highlight the differences between the type of plankton (so yes, the colors aren’t exactly real). Phytoplankton booms such as this one are very important for the surrounding environment, producing extra oxygen and providing nutrients for pretty much every animal in the oceans, from zooplankton to fish and even whales.


Iron Fertilization Of Oceans against global warming


Iron Fertilization

Global warming is a hot topic everywhere in the world, and probably have ourselves to blame for that. The careless use of resources combined with greed and lack of respect for mother earth could be what leads to our demise. The signs are everywhere but at first they were more obvious in the oceans. So probably protecting and helping out the oceans should be among the first places to start the long and hard fight against global warming. In the late 1980s after oceanographer John Martin famously told colleagues: “Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age.” scientists started to take a serious look at that. Huge blooms of marine plants (phytoplankton) could be caused by spreading slurries of dissolved iron into the oceans. Phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide as they grow and iron is a necessary micronutrient.

A senior scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department stated that there are many critical questions that require both better scientific understanding and an improved legal, economic, and political framework before iron fertilization could be effective. So the days September 26-27 are going to be the days that scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will host an international, interdisciplinary conference on the proposed “iron fertilization” of the ocean. This is the first step in making iron fertilization happen. In 20 hours of formal presentations and panel discussions over two days, participants will discuss:
Efficacy: Can iron fertilization work?
Research: What do we already know, and what could future studies, models, and experiments tell us?
Consequence: What will be the intended and unintended impacts?
Policy: What are the economic, social, and regulatory considerations?

It has been tested but results have varied to a certain extent. They have not varied greatly and in general, iron fertilizers have been shown to promote plant growth in surface waters. But the impacts from long-term, large-scale fertilization are hard to predict. It is also not certain whether the process removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the long term or just for a fleeting time. Still it remains a plan to study and probably it is going to be used to help mankind in such troubled times.