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Learn More: Ocean Ecology

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What's New
Explore the beauty of phytoplankton
Which phytoplankton are you?
Tiny but important
Wander and drift
Microscopic photosynthetic drifters

FAQs

Yes, phytoplankton do have chlorophyll, but they also have other pigments that influence how they absorb and scatter light. So those accessory pigments - what we call accessory pigments - that allow the phytoplankton to efficiently absorb light have different colors associated with them. So depending on how much each of those pigments they have, they can override the chlorophyll and actually make them a different color. Also, not only is the pigment content of the phytoplankton important, but also the size and shape. So the way that the light is scattered by the texture, size, and shape of that phytoplankton will also influence the color. So, they're not always green.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
[Ivona] First you're drier, and you don't get seasick! But if you think about it as an oceanographer, it's just two different tools in your tool set. What both Amy and I do, we both go to sea and collect information that allows us to develop algorithms - mathematical relationships - that ultimately connect the ocean color measurements that we see from space with the things that we want to measure. So, number of phytoplankton. But then there are days when we're stuck in front of the computer and dream about the sea and then we go to sea and dream about being dry and stuck in front of the computer.

[Amy] We do need the ship-based part, as Ivona said, to ground truth the satellite data. But the satellite gives us greater cover. So when we're on a ship, we're only hitting this [tiny] part of the ocean. The satellite is covering the entire ocean. So we get a lot more information vs. just one portion of the ocean when we're on a ship.

Dr. Ivona Cetinić, Ocean Ecologist and Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
A Trichodesmium bloom in the Coral Sea
A Trichodesmium bloom in the Coral Sea (September 1, 2019). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
Yes, it has an impact not only on ocean color (because there are sediments there and it's going to affect the scattering and absorption that we see in the water column) but there have been some studies that have looked at the iron input from those Saharan dust storms into the Gulf of Mexico and the middle of the Atlantic that might actually stimulate things like Trichodesmium (a type of cyanobacterium that likes iron). So that iron that comes from the Saharan Desert will actually stimulate them to grow. So yes, it can have an impact on phytoplankton.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
Karen brevis, magnified 20x
Karen brevis, magnified 20x.
There are. Trichodesmium forms little strands and group together to form colonies. And when you're out at sea - and we've both seen this ourselves - they actually form what we call sawdust on the [ocean] surface and you can see that with the naked eye. Another dinoflagellate, Karenia brevis - if there's enough of it in a bottle - you can see the little balls swimming around. They're about the size of Alexandrium, which you can almost see with the naked eye.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
I grow my own monocultures of various types of phytoplankton in one of our labs here at Goddard. And basically, what I have to do every two to three weeks is take a culture - I make mediums so I take seawater and add all the nutrients they need to survive, to eat - and then I transfer the cultures to the new medium. Because after awhile the culture uses up all the nutrients and starts to die, just like in the ocean. So you have to replenish their nutrients. So every few weeks I have to put them in new seawater with nutrients. So far they haven't needed any waves to survive in stationary flasks.

There are places where you can buy starter cultures and grow them yourself. I did see an advertisement for the bioluminescent phytoplankton. Otherwise, when scientists collect phytoplankton to make into a monoculture, they have to go out to sea and individually isolate different cells and then start growing them.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
Phytoplankton and blue-green algae blooms in the Baltic Sea
Phytoplankton and blue-green algae blooms in the Baltic Sea (July 23, 2018). More frequent and massive blooms, combined with warming seas due to climate change, are making it harder for fish and other marine life to thrive in this basin. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
There are many studies looking at the impact of climate change on the oceans, and ultimately on ocean life. Many of them are looking at the impact climate change has on phytoplankton diversity and abundance. And so what scientists have seen over the last years shows that because of the changes in the way that the land interacts with the ocean - so either increases in land-based input through rivers or processes associated with agriculture and so on - you can see more abundant blooms in the coastal ocean, especially harmful algal blooms.

Dr. Ivona Cetinić, Ocean Ecologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).