New Data Show How Phytoplankton Pumps Carbon Out of the Atmosphere at an Enormous Scale

One of the most fascinating things about planet Earth is the way that life shapes the Earth and the Earth shapes life. We only have to look back to the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) of 2.4 billion years ago to see how lifeforms have shaped the Earth. In that event, phytoplanktons called cyanobacteria pumped the atmosphere with oxygen, extinguishing most life on Earth, and paving the way for the development of multicellular life.

Early Earth satisfied the initial conditions for life to appear, and now, lifeforms shape the atmosphere, the landscape, and the oceans in many different ways.

At the base of many of these changes is phytoplankton.

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A Swirling Oasis of Life

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A serpentine eddy swirls in the southern Indian Ocean several hundred kilometers off the coast of South Africa in this natural-color image, acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite on December 26, 2011.

The blue color is created by blooms of phytoplankton, fertilized by the nutrient-rich deep water drawn up by the 150-km-wide eddy.

The counter-clockwise anticyclonic structure of the eddy may resemble a hurricane or typhoon, but unlike those violent storms eddies bring nourishment rather than destruction.

“Eddies are the internal weather of the sea,” said Dennis McGillicuddy, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

And also unlike atmospheric storms, ocean eddies can last for months, even up to a year. The largest ones can contain up to 1,200 cubic miles (5,000 cubic kilometers) of water.

The nutrient-drawing power of eddies can supply the relatively barren waters of the open ocean with nutrients, creating “oases in the oceanic desert,” according to McGillicuddy.

Read more about the WHOI study of eddies here.

The eddy imaged here likely peeled off from the Agulhas Current, which flows along the southeastern coast of Africa and around the tip of South Africa. Agulhas eddies tend to be among the largest in the world.

The image below shows the eddy in context with the surrounding area:

Eddy off the coast of South Africa. December 26, 2011. (NASA/Terra-MODIS)

MODIS (or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) is a key instrument aboard NASA’s Terra (EOS AM) satellite. Terra MODIS views the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days, acquiring data in 36 spectral bands. These data improve our understanding of global dynamics and processes occurring on the land, in the ocean, and in the lower atmosphere.

Read more on NASA’s Earth Observatory site here.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data obtained from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE).