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NASA Satellite Data Capture a Big Climate Effect on Tiny Ocean Life
Turns out that the old cliché, "it's the little things that make a difference," is especially true when it comes to our atmosphere and oceans. Tiny ocean plants, or phytoplankton, help regulate the Earth's climate by accounting for about half of the carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, absorbed annually from the atmosphere by plants. But, these organisms are also the base of the marine food web, responsible for most of the biological activity in the ocean. Microscopic animals called zooplankton, eat the phytoplankton and are in turn eaten by other larger animals. So, any change in phytoplankton numbers alters the ocean food chain.

This series of images shows chlorophyll levels in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, derived from SeaWiFS data.Image to right: Ocean Surface Chlorophyll: This series of images shows chlorophyll levels in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, derived from SeaWiFS data. Chlorophyll indicates phytoplankton. During the La Nina in 1998, the image shows a higher concentration of chlorophyll (yellow and red colors) around the equator (0 degrees). A normal year shows a lighter shading, or much less chlorophyll. During the 1997 El Nino, the indication of chlorophyll is almost not noticeable. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Now, new research shows these marine plants may have an even greater impact on the health of our oceans and climate than previously thought. In a study published in the January 2005 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Wendy Wang and colleagues at the University of Maryland, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC), College Park, Md., found that phytoplankton population and size can change dramatically due to the physical processes associated with the climate phenomena known as El Niño and La Niña. In turn, these changes not only affect ocean ecology, but also influence our climate by impacting carbon storage in the ocean.

During an El Niño year, warm waters from the Western Pacific Ocean spread out over much of the basin as upwelling subsides in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Upwelling brings cool, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean up to the surface. So, when upwelling weakens, phytoplankton do not get enough nutrients to maintain their growth. As a result, surface waters turn into "marine deserts" with unusually low populations of phytoplankton and other tiny organisms. With less food, fish cannot survive in the surface water, which then also deprives seabirds of food.

During La Niña conditions, the opposite effect occurs as the easterly trade winds pick up and upwelling intensifies, bringing nutrients to the surface waters, which fuels phytoplankton growth. Sometimes, the growth can take place quickly, developing into what scientists call phytoplankton "blooms."

Still from animation showing El Nino around the Galapagos Islands.Image to left: Life Returns to the Galapagos After El Nino: During the 1997-98 El Nino, the surface water in the eastern equatorial Pacific off the coast of South America was warmer than normal. This warm water trapped the ocean nutrients and led to a drastic decrease in phytoplankton and other ocean life in the region. The unique Galapagos ecosystem was severely affected and many species, including sea lions, seabirds, and barracudas, suffered a very high mortality level. During the second week of May, 1998, the ocean temperatures plummeted 10 degrees in one day, and the ocean productivity exploded with large phytoplankton blooms. After this time, many species recovered very rapidly and the land species started to reproduce immediately. The SeaWiFS instrument, which monitors global phytoplankton in the oceans by measuring the color of reflected light, caught this dramatic recovery. This visualization shows images from SeaWiFS starting on May 10, 1998 and ending on May 31, 1998, where ocean colors of blue or purple represents little or no ocean life and colors of yellow and red indicate significant ocean productivity. White and gray denote areas occluded by clouds in these images, and a relief image of the Galapagos Islands has been superimposed on the images to clarify the location of the islands. Click on image to view animation (no audio--2.6 MB). Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Using a computer model and NASA's Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite, Wang examined marine biological changes associated with El Niño and La Niña, and uncovered the mechanisms responsible for such phytoplankton blooms. SeaWiFS measures the amount of light coming out of the ocean at different wavelengths and can determine the intensity of plant pigment, or greenness, and the number of individual phytoplankton cells.

A dramatic recovery from the strong 1997-98 El Niño led to La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, beginning in mid-1998. "During this period, SeaWiFS imagery showed extremely dark greenness along the equator, with chlorophyll concentrations increasing by more than 500 percent, a level not previously observed," said Wang. The computer model showed strong upwelling helped to bring extra iron, an important micro-nutrient for marine organisms, into the surface waters, stimulating phytoplankton growth. The study also found that since most zooplankton died off during the intense El Niño phase, there were fewer of these ocean animals in the surface water to eat phytoplankton, leading to large unhindered phytoplankton blooms.

This graph shows the levels of phytoplankton zooplankton, and ratio of large phytoplankton to total phytoplankton in the eastern equatorial Pacific.Image to right: Tracking the Plankton Levels Over Time: This graph shows the levels of phytoplankton (black line), zooplankton (red line), and ratio of large phytoplankton to total phytoplankton (green line), in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Notice that during the 1997 El Nino all the levels dropped, and in late 1998, during the La Nina, the colder surface waters replenished the levels. (Years are listed on the bottom axis) Click on image to enlarge. Credit: UMD

As phytoplankton flourish, a large amount of carbon is used to build cells during photosynthesis. The plants get carbon from carbon dioxide in surface waters. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas. When marine organisms die, they carry carbon in their cells to the deep ocean. Surprisingly, this study found that this "export of carbon increased by a factor of eight due to the large phytoplankton blooms," said Wang. This process, called the oceanic “biological pump.” is an important mechanism that enables more carbon dioxide to be transferred from the atmosphere, to be stored in the ocean floor.

Clearly, this process helps to reduce the "greenhouse effect" by stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean is truly a key player in the future our global climate. Researchers will continue to study the impact of climate changes on marine ecosystems and NASA will continue to play a unique role by providing satellite observations that offer detailed information to advance scientific knowledge of the Earth system.

Still from animation which shows the El Nino and La Nina around the globe.Image to left: SeaWiFS: El Nino and La Nina on a Globe: By monitoring the color of reflected light via satellite, scientists can determine how successfully plant life is photosynthesizing. A measurement of photosynthesis is essentially a measurement of successful growth, and growth means successful use of ambient carbon. Until now, scientists have only had a continuous record of photosynthesis on land. But following three years of continual data collected by the SeaWiFS instrument, NASA has gathered the first record of photosynthetic productivity in the oceans. Since this animation, SeaWifs has accumulated 7 total years of data. Click on image to view animation (no audio--5.9 MB). Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Co-authors on this study include James Christian, Ragu Murtugudde, and Antonio Busalacchi from Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland.

Mike Bettwy
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center