NASA Earth Observatory
Plankton blooms in the North Atlantic in this photo taken in spring, 2012.

Swirling ocean prompts plankton blooms, suggests study

A study of plankton in the North Atlantic found that whirlpools of ocean water prompt the bloom that occurs each spring.

The North Atlantic is currently bursting with color as blooms of microscopic plants erupt on the surface of the chilly sea. But these expanses of plankton, which provide the basis for the area's food chain and help take in enormous quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, wouldn't be possible without swirling currents on the surface to keep them afloat, new research finds.

These eddies, or whirlpools of water, created by wind and ocean currents, actually prompt the growth of these colorful plankton blooms, according to a study published in the July 6 issue of the journal Science.

In the North Atlantic bloom, which takes place each spring and early summer when the sun is far enough above the horizon to fuel photosynthesis, an immense number of phytoplankton burst into color,  first "greening" and then "whitening" the sea as one species follows another.

"Our results show that the bloom starts through eddies, even before the sun begins to warm the ocean," study author Amala Mahadevan, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said in a statement.

The scientists focused on phytoplankton known as diatoms. Diatoms live in "glass houses," with walls made of silica. When conditions are right, diatom blooms spread across hundreds of miles of ocean and bring life-sustaining food to sometimes barren waters.

The newly discovered mechanism helps explain the timing of the spring plankton bloom, known to mariners and fishermen for centuries and visible in satellite images.

Phytoplankton blooms absorb 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 percent of the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide.

Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Swirling ocean prompts plankton blooms, suggests study
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today