NASA image courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC
A phytoplankton bloom in the North Sea seen on May 30, 2014, but NASA's Terra satellite.
Among the most beautiful, mysterious and downright regular events on planet Earth are the colossal blooms of plankton in oceans, seas and lakes. As you'll see in this slideshow, with the specially-designed satellite eyes, like that of SeaWiFS and others, we can see these blooms in more detail than ever before possible. Still, the whys and wheres of these blooms remain largely mysterious. New research is starting to tease out what triggers these blooms, including the toxic "red tides" that make the news. Scientists have also discovered signs that these gigantic expanses of single-celled organisms might behave like a single massive beast. If so, these are superorganisms -- the largest on the planet. Seen just by its chlorophyll -- the stuff that makes plants green -- the Gulf Stream seems to pour like dragon fire from the Carolinas in this image. The Gulf Stream is not just a warm current, it's also a cozy place to grow. This false color image shows more detail than possible in a visible light view. The chlorophyll concentration is lowest in the blue areas and grades higher through aqua, green, yellow, orange and red. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
World of Chlorophyll
Global chlorophyll portraits of the Earth's oceans are showing them to be as changeable and seasonal as plants on land -- even more so because vast colonies of microscopic phytoplankton in the seas can be carried far and wide by currents. As you'll see in the coming images, the combinations of currents, water temperatures and nutrient levels can make for some startling and complex images. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
River of Heat
A true river within the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf Stream current can be seen clearly meandering off Cape Cod (upper left) in this sea surface temperature image. Get ready: The next image shows the same scene at the same time, but strictly in terms of where the chlorophyll is growing strong. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
River of Green
Warm waters moving north by way of eddies pinched off in the Gulf Stream meanders help feed productive seas there. The waters to the south are mixing with cooler water and less productive. The stark differences create a feast for the eyes. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Chlorophyll-rich eddies like this one in the southwest Indian Ocean are one of the ways warmer and colder waters are able to mix. This MODIS image shows a 200-kilometer-wide eddy south of Madagascar. Eddies like this one have been known to persist for years. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Pea Soup on Ice
Even in natural colors, blooms can be striking -- and in surprising places. This pea-soup-green bloom was captured in the act in Antarctica's Ross Sea on Dec. 6. 2004. The phytoplankton-thick waters were found just north of the Ross Ice Shelf. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Another enhanced natural color image shows where waters of the South Atlantic Ocean encounter the nutrient-rich polar waters which surround Antarctica. The coiled eddy in the lower left of this picture falls within this clashing of waters. The winners in this clash of waters are the green phytoplankton that benefit from both waters and can thrive in the collision zone. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
This July 25, 2007, chlorophyll view of the Mozambique Channel, between the island of Madagascar and Mozambique reveals a unsuspected system of interconnected, phytoplankton-rich eddies. In natural light none of the connections are readily apparent. They look, instead like a patchwork of unconnected blooms. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Dust blowing off the land and into the sea serves as fertilizer to phytoplankton. Here the dust comes from the dry central Baja California Peninsula, carried west over the Pacific Ocean. This bloom was caught in the act on Nov. 2, 2004. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Tasmania Meets Jupiter
The ocean east of Tasmania here is shown using satellite data, false colors and a bit of artistic license. The image enhances the subtle color differences in the water caused by not only phytoplankton but by dissolved organic matter, sediment, bubbles and what not. Even the Earth's atmosphere and the MODIS instrument itself might be contributing to these colors, which is why such things are normally filtered out for scientific purposes. The result is a sea that resembled the turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter. Just goes to show that every now and then aesthetic considerations can and should prevail. Credit: NASA/GeoEye
Ghostly and blue-green, a phytoplankton bloom meanders across the North Sea in new satellite imagery.
The satellite image was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite. Terra is part of a team; along with another NASA satellite, Aqua, it images the entire surface of the Earth every day or two.
The picture of the phytoplankton bloom was taken on May 30. Phytoplankton are microscopic plantlike organisms that drift in the oceans. Blooms occur when plankton encounter a vein of nutrients and go on a feeding (and multiplication) frenzy.
As the basis for the ocean food chain, phytoplankton use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into chemical energy. To do so, they use green chlorophyll, just like plants. It's this chlorophyll that paints the sea aquamarine during a phytoplankton bloom.
Phytoplankton blooms are generally harmless, but a few produce toxins. The dinoflagellate Alexandrium, for example, blooms red rather than green. This plankton is responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning, which can be deadly in humans who ingest shellfish that have fed on Alexandrium. Not all red blooms (known as "red tides") are Alexandrium (in fact, it blooms rarely, according to the California Department of Public Health), and a bloom is not necessary for shellfish to accumulate the toxins. As a result, states like California have programs to monitor the water for these dangerous toxins.
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