A phytoplankton bloom swirls a figure-8 in the South Atlantic Ocean. Credit: ESA, Envisat
A phytoplankton bloom swirls a figure-8 in the South Atlantic Ocean. Credit: ESA, Envisat

Earth, Earth Observation, Satellites

As Seen From Space: Beautiful Swirling Phytoplankton Blooms

13 Jan , 2012 by


One of the orbiting windows to our world, an Earth-observing satellite named Envisat, took this image in early December 2011 showing a phytoplankton bloom swirling into a figure-8 in the South Atlantic Ocean about 600 km east of the Falkland Islands. The European Space Agency says that since the phytoplankton are sensitive to environmental changes, it is important to monitor and model them for climate change calculations and to identify potentially harmful blooms. Sensors on the satellites can monitor these algal blooms and make an initial identification of its species and toxicity.

Blooms like this are common in the spring and summer, and it is currently summer in the southern hemisphere.

These microscopic organisms are the base of the marine food chain, and play a huge role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the production of oxygen in the oceans. Besides being beautiful to see from space, phytoplankton help regulate the carbon cycle, and are important to the global climate system.

Source: ESA

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Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

2 Responses

  1. Oats Chamberstein says:

    would this be classed as a form of Kelvin Helmholtz instability?

    • Torbjörn Larsson says:

      I think you are correct in that it would be a component.

      It is hard to figure if there is an island in the center of the first swirl because of the cloud coverage, but the text implies it isn’t. Good, because I can’t remember how much of the hydrodynamical turbulence in the wake of an object is proposed to be explained by a KH instability (none; some; all ?). =D

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