Bloomin’ marvellous


A stunning image of a massive bloom of phytoplankton off the Chatham Islands (to the east of NZ — that’s Wellington and the Wairarapa in the top left corner), snapped by NASA’s Aqua satellite on December 5th and featured this week at NASA’s excellent Earth Observatory. Click on the image to see the full (4MB) image with lots more detail. NASA describes the region as a carbon sink, because the mixing of cold but nutrient rich deep water from Antarctica, with warm nutrient-poor (but iron-rich) sub tropical water provides the perfect recipe for large phytoplankton blooms — especially in spring and autumn. A major constituent of these blooms is usually huge numbers of coccolithophores, an important component in the oceanic carbon cycle, as I pointed out the last time the Chathams featured on the Earth Observatory.

21 thoughts on “Bloomin’ marvellous”

    1. Hmm I didn’t think there was any deliberate required. Not under Kyoto anyway.

      Look at Russia’s LULUCF at the following link (2008, Table10s5.2)

      638 million tonnes of credits for LULUCF! Is that deliberate planting??

      Your lot are pretty quick to throw the insults, but it was a serious question. I suspect the answer is no we can not claim it, but I am interested to explore the idea. Likely it is because we can not show permanence.

      1. You are missing the point.

        The Phytoplankton bloom is a natural phenomenon and is helpful in removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Claiming it as a carbon credit would only work if your economy wanted to destroy this carbon sink in the way of your common business but you alter your business plans to save it.

        More troubling than a few $$ is the fact that warming oceans will reduce and potentially wipe out Phytoplankton with catastrophic consequences:


        Not only is Phytoplankton helpful as a CO2 scrubber, it is a major contribution to the O2 content of the atmosphere. If we manage to kill of Phytoplankton we will face serious consequences including an acceleration of the drop in O2 levels.

        Not only in the oceans:

        but also in the atmosphere as 50% of the oxygen we breath comes from Phytoplankton.

      2. Accuracy in estimation is demanded, and I doubt there is any method suitable.
        And NZ would need to be able to account for all emissions from the source, since 1990. Not just this bloom.
        And the small problem of this “sink” not ever having been agreed to under article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol.

        1. Yes good points Anon.

          I don’t think we would need to account for emissions in 1990 given LULUCF is accounted for on Gross-Net basis (sequestration in 1990 is not subtracted from allocations for removals). But we would need to account for ALL emissions and sinks, not just this one occurrence. Which we are unlikely to be able to do.

  1. R2D2 we should be grateful that there are these carbon sinks. Without these carbon sinks the rise of CO2 concentrations would be even faster due to our CO2 release from fossil fuels.

    Sadly ocean warming in progress will potentially wipe out this carbon sink.

    Not only that, while these algae blooms are carbon sinks they are also O2 sources and a large proportion of the O2 in our atmosphere. If global warming destroys much of the Phytoplankton (are down by 40% of it since the 1950’s) then we should be staring to worry about the O2 balance in our atmosphere!

    So there is nothing to brag about this Plankton boom at all, in fact the decline in Plankton is the story that is noteworthy.

    1. Thomas, I’ve discovered some of your comments were netted by the spam facility which has had a lot of work to do recently. Sorry for the delay in discovering them. Gareth’s away for a few days and I was slow to pick up what was happening.

      1. Hi Bryan!

        Thanks. I think as the comments did not show I sort of doubled up. Sorry about that. Is there something particular that I can do to avoid being caught in the spam filter? Perhaps pasting links to other sites triggers it?


        1. No, there doesn’t seem to be any reason – others were caught who didn’t have links to other sites. There was a veritable onslaught of real spam and it’s almost as if the filter was over-stimulated. I didn’t try to sort out any doubling-up that may have resulted – just transferred you to where you ought to be.

    2. I feel I should comment on this O2 issue which is really a red herring. The O2 content of the atmosphere (20 %) was built up over at least a billion years of surplus photosynthesis. Even if all photosynthesis ceased, it would take millions of years of respiration to deplete the O2 content seriously. This is a very long term cycle. There are far more important issues to worry about.

  2. Hi Gareth: Great post of an important image.

    R2D2: “Permanence” is the right word. With phytoplankton blooms, the key question is how much of the sequestered carbon gets transferred into the deep ocean, so that it leaves the ocean-atmosphere system for long enough. on a global scale, about 5% of phytoplankton carbon sequestration does this. Therefore, very little of the carbon sequestered in these blooms is useful as a carbon sink.

    It is similar to letting the grass in your paddock grow very long. Once you let the sheep in to eat it up, most of the carbon will get back to the atmosphere as methane or readily compostible organic matter (ultimately CO2).

    Another relevant analogy is that phytoplankton blooms are like forests managed for fuel. Burn the wood, no net change in the carbon cycle.

    Nonetheless, the biological response of the ocean cannot be ignored in the overall climate equation.

      1. Thanks Gareth. I’m keen to do that. Let’s talk more in the New Year (I do have another job). but in my research group we are doing some interesting things on OA that might interest your readers.

  3. Yes, Thomas, that is something that is going to become an issue in the near future.

    As the oceans warm they begin to stratify meaning reduced mixing of deep waters with the surface. This leads to declines in upwelling of nutrients to the surface and is thought to be the cause of the 40% reduction in phytoplankton in the last century.

    Oxygen levels in the ocean will decline simply because oxygen is less soluble in warmer water, but the stratification also reduces ventilation of oxygen to deeper waters too. So marine organisms living on the ocean floor will inevitably be one of the first to suffer.

    An expansion of oxygen minimum zones in the world’s oceans have been recently observed, some palaeo data show that de-oxygenation occurs in times of global warming and ocean anoxia (oxygen depletion) is linked to some major extinction events, most notably the Permian Extinction. So there is growing evidence to support this relatively new area of research.

    Ocean Acidification, mass coral bleaching due to warming oceans, stratification, oceanic de-oxygenation, eutrophication of coastal waters. It doesn’t bode well, but (fingers crossed) maybe humanity can react in time to curb the worst of it.

  4. I don’t think this is science dw according to John D and R2,

    “I think by “scientists” John D did not mean scientists. Hence the quote marks. More like your sociology, ecology, environmental science majors etc. I am sure there is no desire to suggest that the classical scientist is not a respectable occupation.” R2 on NZYD in Cancun.

    Therefore it can’t be true – nor for that matter “respectable”.

    Frankly, I think we are stuffed.

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