Stunning view of a bloom from space

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Jan. 14 2012 7:00 AM

Stunning view of a bloom from space

Almost exactly one year ago, I posted a beautiful picture of a phytoplankton bloom as seen from space. And here's another one, and it's way, way more spectacular!

Holy wow! [Click to enalgaenate.]

This shot of a bloom in the southern Atlantic Ocean was taken by the ESA's Envirosat, which -- duh -- is designed to observe our environment. In this case, scientists keep a keen eye on phytoplankton blooms: while this bloom is breathtaking and gorgeous, many can be hazardous. Besides producing toxins that can harm sea life, they can also consume more oxygen in the water than usual, which is obviously tough on any life in the area. [Update (May 3, 2013): That last bit is not entirely accurate; only some phytoplankton produce toxins (probably not the kind seen here), and it's bacteria that eat the phytoplankton that use up the oxygen. I have details about that (and a new picture!) in a May3, 2013 post.] The color of the bloom can be found quickly using satellite imagery like this, and the algae species determined. Also, phytoplankton are sensitive to some climate changes, so observing them can act as a "canary in the coal mine" for climate change.

Sometimes, the best view of the Earth around us is from above. And sometimes that view is amazing, but a reminder that our ecosystem is a dynamic balance... and it's best that we understand all the forces that can upset that equilibrium.

Tip o' the petri dish to Alan Boyle on Google+. Image credit: ESA

 

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!