Picture: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

Phytoplankton visible from space

– June 9, 2023

Microbes are the tiniest form of life on Earth. They cannot be seen with the naked eye, but on a good day, you can spot them from space. How is that possible?

Observation from Space

Recently, a cloud of phytoplankton was observed from space, south of Ireland. Phytoplankton is a term used for microscopic marine organisms that can perform photosynthesis. Together, they produce about 70% of the Earth's oxygen each year and absorb a tremendous amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. The name comes from the Greek words "phyton" (plant) and "planktos" (wandering).

Algal Bloom

In spring, the seawater warms up, and the sun's intensity increases. These are favorable conditions for phytoplankton, causing them to multiply rapidly. Eventually, a cloud is formed with a size and density that can be seen from space.

A Turquoise Spectacle

So, where does that light blue color come from? One well-known type of phytoplankton is called coccolithophore. These algae have an artistic skeleton that reflects sunlight like a mirror. The light is then reflected upward, out of the water, creating the beautiful turquoise color.

Tiny but mighty!

Phytoplankton have a much larger impact on marine ecosystems than you might think for these tiny creatures. They form the basis of the food chain: phytoplanktonare eaten by zooplankton like krill, which serve as a food source for many marine animals, including whales. When such a cloud of phytoplankton forms, it often attracts a lot of marine life around it.

A negative consequence of this algal bloom is that the cloud reflects sunlight from the sea. As a result, the marine life beneath the plankton cloud receives less sunlight to survive, which can disrupt marine ecosystems and lead to species extinction. Excessive algal blooms are a result of warmer seawater and an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.

If you want to learn more about the microbes swimming next to you in the sea during your beach day, visit Micropia this summer, where you can further explore the micro life in the sea!

Picture: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC