New Trigger For North Atlantic Phytoplankton Blooms Discovered


Every year, in the North Atlantic Ocean, there occurs what’s known as the North Atlantic Bloom. It has caused an immense number of phytoplankton bursting into existence. The seawater first turns green, and then whitish, as a progression of different species bloom.

What’s the cause of this enormous bloom? Previously it had been known that the bloom coincides with the longer days of spring, and more sunlight.

But according to new research just published in the journal Science, there is also another trigger that can cause these blooms, whirlpools, or eddies, that move across the surface layer of the North Atlantic Ocean. These whirling eddies can sustain phytoplankton blooms “in the ocean’s shallower waters where they can get plenty of sunlight to fuel growth, thereby keeping them from being pushed downward by the vagaries of rough processes at the ocean surface.”

This discovery brings up an interesting question — how might these blooms influence the global carbon cycle?

“Springtime blooms of microscopic plants in the ocean absorb enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, much like our forests, emitting oxygen via photosynthesis. Their growth contributes to the oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide, amounting globally to about one-third of the carbon dioxide we put into the air each year through the burning of fossil fuels. An important question is how this ‘biological pump’ for carbon might change in the future as our climate evolves.”

The North Atlantic Ocean is crucial to this process — more than 20 percent of the ocean’s uptake of CO2 occurs here.

“In winter, cooling and strong winds generate mixing that pushes phytoplankton into deeper waters, robbing them of sunlight, but drawing up nutrients from depth. As winter turns to spring, days become longer. Phytoplankton are exposed to more sunlight, fueling their growth.”

“Our results show that, due to eddies, the bloom starts even before the sun begins to warm the ocean,” says Amala Mahadevan, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts and lead author of the Science paper. Co-authors of the paper are Eric D’Asaro and Craig Lee of the University of Washington, and Mary Jane Perry of the University of Maine.

“Every 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.”

The discovery of this ‘new’ mechanism helps to explain the timing of the spring and summer blooms. Though it’s been known to mariners and fishermen for centuries and is clearly visible in satellite images, there are still some aspects of it not well understood. The discovery also brings new insight into why the bloom has a patchy appearance — “it is shaped by the eddies that, in essence, modulate its formation.”

The researchers say that the work wasn’t easy. “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.”

“Our field work was set up with floats, gliders and research ships that all worked tightly together,” says D’Asaro. “They were in the same area, so we could put together a cohesive picture of the bloom.”

The study focused on the phytoplankton that are known as diatoms. Diatoms are silica-based, living in ‘glass houses.’ “When conditions are right, diatoms blooms spread across hundreds of miles of ocean,” says Lee, “bringing life-sustaining food to sometimes barren waters.”

“In April, 2008, Lee, Perry and colleagues arrived in a storm-lashed North Atlantic aboard the Icelandic research vessel Bjarni Saemundsson.”

“They 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,” like a giant phytoplankton.

“Lurking 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.”

“The 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 phytoplankton.”

“In total, scientists aboard two ships, the WHOI-operated research vessel Knorr and the Bjarni Saemundsson, visited the area four times.”

“Soon after the measurements from the floats and gliders started coming in, the scientists perceived that the bloom had started even though surface conditions still looked winter-like.”

“It was apparent that some new mechanism, other than surface warming, was behind the bloom initiation,” says D’Asaro.

“To find answers, the researchers needed sophisticated computer modeling.”

“Enter Mahadevan, who then used three-dimensional computer modeling to look at information collected at sea by Perry, D’Asaro and Lee.”

“She generated eddies in the model from a south-to-north variation of temperature in the ocean. Without these, the bloom happened several weeks later, and didn’t have the space and time structures observed in the North Atlantic.”

In the future, the researchers want to put the North Atlantic Bloom into a broader context. “We could learn a lot from following its evolution across an entire year with gliders and float outfitted with new sensors to look at the zooplankton that graze on a smorgasbord of phytoplankton. This data could be integrated with a suite of physical-biological models to unfold a more complete story” say the scientists.

“Ocean physics, and in particular, what we are learning about eddies, is intrinsic to life in the ocean. They shape the oceanic ecosystem in numerous ways. No phytoplankton, no zooplankton; no zooplankton, no fish. Furthermore, eddies and phytoplankton are central to the oceanic cycling of carbon, without which we would have a different climate on Earth.”

“We envision using the gliders and float to make measurements — and models — of ocean physics, chemistry and biology,” says D’Asaro, “that span wide regions of the world ocean.”

“And that, says Lee, would spark a new understanding of the sea, all from a tiny plankton that each spring and summer blooms by the millions and millions.”

Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Image Credits: NASA; ESA; Bror Jonsson, Princeton University, and MODIS satellite data, NASA; Dane Wojcicki, University of Maine

5 thoughts on “New Trigger For North Atlantic Phytoplankton Blooms Discovered”

    1. You can view a wki post on eddie effects on plankton observed in 2009. This may be a more in depth study, but it is not a new find. Also, if the study observed diatoms plankton, this is more alarming that just recycling CO2. Diatom plankton an part of the urea cycle. They release domoic acid, a powerful toxin. I will have to go back and see if this bloom is turning into a red tide.

      1. J. Gibbons… I believe you may be thinking of Dinoflagellates for the infamous red tides. There is one species of diatom that does produce toxin, but in general, diatoms are major primary producers in the oceans. Do we know what species of diatom the present study is finding?

  1. Nathan writes: “The study focused on the phytoplankton that are known as diatoms. Diatoms are silica-based, living in ‘glass houses.’ ”
    Unfortunately, this process does little to sequester CO2 over the long term because the organic carbon in the diatoms will be quickly recycled back to CO2 via aerobic respiration. Little of it ever reaches the sediments for burial. And, silica contains no carbon. But, if the phytoplankton were mostly coccoliths that are carbonate (CaCO3) based (e.g. White Cliffs of Dover) then the CO2 tied up on their little “calcite houses” would indeed keep the CO2 from re-entering the atmosphere/ocean complex.

    Don Rice (NSF): ” observes…when it comes to the ocean, the things we think we know hold some big surprises.”
    Indeed. Another big surprise (seemingly relevant here): is the distribution of hydrothermal vents. Originally thought to be rare, they are being found everywhere, even in the Antarctic and inside the Arctic Circle.
    One example:
    Excerpt… “To their astonishment, they have already found at least five other sites with gas plumes. Some even lie outside the volcanically active spreading zone in areas where hydrothermal activity was previously not assumed to occur.” “Our results indicate that many more of these small active sites exist along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge than previously assumed,” said Dr. Nicole Dubilier, the chief scientist of the expedition. “This could change our understanding of the contribution of hydrothermal activity to the thermal budget of the oceans.”

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