Oceanographer Amala Mahadevan with a model showing the role of eddies in the bloom. Credit: WHOI
the recent 4th of July holiday, U.S. beachgoers thronged their way to
seaside resorts and parks to celebrate with holiday fireworks.
the horizon and miles out to sea toward the north, the Atlantic Ocean’s
own spring and summer ritual was unfolding: the blooming of countless
microscopic plant plankton, or phytoplankton.
what’s known as the North Atlantic Bloom, an immense number of
phytoplankton burst into color, first “greening” then “whitening” the
sea as one species follows another.
In research results published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, scientists report evidence of what triggers this huge bloom.
or eddies, swirl across the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean
sustaining phytoplankton in the ocean’s shallower waters where they can
get plenty of sunlight to fuel their growth, keeping them from being
pushed downward by the ocean’s rough surface.
The result is a burst of spring and summer color atop the ocean’s waters.
How important is the bloom to the North Atlantic Ocean and beyond—to the global carbon cycle?
like forests, springtime blooms of microscopic plants in the ocean
absorb enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, emitting oxygen via
growth contributes to the oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide, amounting
globally to about one-third of the carbon dioxide humans put into the
air each year through the burning of fossil fuels.
The North Atlantic is critical to this process; it’s responsible for more than 20% of the ocean’s uptake of carbon dioxide.
An important scientific question is how this “biological pump” for carbon might change in the future as Earth’s climate evolves.
winter, strong winds generate mixing that pushes phytoplankton into
deeper waters, robbing them of sunlight but drawing up nutrients from
the depths. As winter turns to spring, days are longer and plankton are
exposed to more sunlight, fueling their growth.
results show that the bloom starts through eddies, even before the sun
begins to warm the ocean,” says Amala Mahadevan, an oceanographer at the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and lead author
of the Science paper.
of the paper are Eric D’Asaro and Craig Lee of the University of
Washington, and Mary Jane Perry of the University of Maine.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the research.
Barely visible against roiling seas: scientist Eric D’Asaro with robotic floats he developed. Credit: Craig Lee
undergraduate who takes an introductory oceanography course learns
about the ecological and climate significance of the North Atlantic
Bloom—as well as what causes it,” says Don Rice, program director in
NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research. “This study
reminds us that, when it comes to the ocean, the things we think we
know hold some big surprises.”
newly discovered mechanism helps explain the timing of the spring and
summer bloom, known to mariners and fishers for centuries and clearly
visible in satellite images.
also offers a new look at why the bloom has a patchy appearance: it is
shaped by eddies that, in essence, orchestrate its formation.
the discovery was no easy feat. “Working in the North Atlantic Ocean is
challenging,” says Perry, “but we were able to track a patch of
seawater off Iceland and follow the progression of the bloom in a way
that hadn’t been done before.”
field work was set up with floats, gliders and research ships that all
worked tightly together,” adds D’Asaro. “They were in the same area, so
we could put together a cohesive picture of the bloom.”
scientists focused on phytoplankton known as diatoms. Diatoms live in
glass houses—walls made of silica. “When conditions are right, diatom
blooms spread across hundreds of miles of ocean,” says Lee, “bringing
life-sustaining food to sometimes barren waters.”
In April 2008, Lee, Perry and D’Asaro arrived in a storm-lashed North Atlantic aboard the Icelandic research vessel Bjarni Saemundsson.
launched specially-designed robots in the rough seas. A float that
hovered below the water’s surface was also deployed. It followed the
motion of the ocean, moving around, says D’Asaro, “like a giant
alongside the float were six-foot-long, teardrop-shaped gliders that
dove to depths of up to 1,000 meters. After each dive, the gliders,
working in areas 20 to 50 kilometers around the float, rose to the
surface, pointed their antennas skyward and transmitted their stored
data back to shore.
float and gliders measured the temperature, salinity and velocity of
the water, and gathered information about the chemistry and biology of
the bloom itself—oxygen, nitrate and the optical signatures of the
Scientists aboard two ships, the Woods Hole-operated research vessel Knorr and Iceland’s Bjarni Saemundsson, visited the area four times.
after measurements from the float and gliders started coming in, the
scientists saw that the bloom had started, even though conditions still
“It was apparent that some new mechanism, other than surface warming, was behind the bloom’s initiation,” says D’Asaro.
To find answers, the researchers needed sophisticated computer modeling.
Mahadevan, who then used three-dimensional computer models to look at
information collected at sea by Perry, D’Asaro and Lee.
generated eddies in a model, using the north-to-south variation of
temperature in the ocean. The model showed that without eddies, the
bloom happened several weeks later and didn’t have the space and time
structures actually observed in the North Atlantic.
future research, the scientists hope to put the North Atlantic Bloom
into a broader context. They believe that much could be learned by
following the bloom’s evolution across an entire year, especially with
gliders and floats outfitted with new sensors. The sensors would look at
the zooplankton that graze on a phytoplankton smorgasbord.
These data could be integrated, say the oceanographers, into models that would offer a more complete story.
we’re learning about eddies is that they’re a critical part of life in
the ocean,” says Perry. “They shape ocean ecosystems in countless ways.”
and phytoplankton, the researchers believe, are central to the oceanic
cycling of carbon, without which climate on Earth would look very
envision using gliders and floats to make measurements—and models—of
ocean physics, chemistry and biology,” says D’Asaro, “that span wide
regions of the world ocean.”
that, says Lee, would spark a new understanding of the sea, all from
tiny plankton that each spring and summer bloom by the millions and
Source: National Science Foundation