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Ocean Color

"No water, no life. No blue, no green." -Sylvia Earle

Our ocean is full of life and color. The color of the ocean is determined by the interaction of sunlight with substances or particles present in seawater (such as sediments) and chlorophyll, a green pigment found in most phytoplankton species.

Using the state-of-the-art Ocean Color Instrument (OCI), PACE will measure light (and color) over a broader spectrum - and a finer resolution - than ever before. This means that not only will PACE be able to identify how much phytoplankton is present, but the kind of phytoplankton that is there. Additionally, PACE will enable us to clarify the connections between aerosols, clouds, and climate.

Learn more in the resources listed below about how PACE will use ocean color to estimate the contents of our ocean.

Can you explain PACE with only the ten hundred most used words in the English language?
Explore ocean color images from around the world
Browse ocean color images by ecosystem and science topic
Watch and learn how ocean color is used to estimate the contents of our ocean
See what PACE will see at various wavelengths
Spin the wheel and see how phytoplankton change the color of the ocean [more]
Learn about the processes that influence ocean color [more]
Learn how PACE will see important details in the ocean and atmosphere [more]
Watch the Earth breathe through 20 years of satellite chlorophyll data [more]
Learn more about what ocean color is, why it is important, and how it is measured [more]
Build your own spectrophotometer to measure light absorption in water samples [more]


The term "ocean color" refers to the spectral composition of the visible light field that emanates from the ocean. The color of the ocean depends on the solar irradiance spectrum, atmospheric conditions, solar and viewing geometries, and the absorption and scattering properties of water and the substances that are dissolved and suspended in the water column, for example, phytoplankton and suspended sediments.

Werdell, P.J. and McClain, C.R. (2019), Satellite Remote Sensing: Ocean Color, Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences, 3rd Edition, 443-455 (27-May-21)
Twenty years of global biosphere
This data visualization shows the Earth’s biosphere from September 1997 through September 2017. Credit: NASA/GSFC.
This visualization shows ocean color data collected by SeaWiFS (Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor), the first ocean color satellite that permitted continuous remote observation of plant life in the ocean (operational from 1997-2010). But the "ocean color story" goes a little further back, with the launch of CZCS (Coastal Zone Color Scanner), which was the first satellite that collected - not continuously - ocean color data (1978-1986). It's really cool that there are people in our lab who were part of that mission - they had printouts and punchcards! Things work a little bit differently these days. Data is delivered automatically, within a couple of hours.

Dr. Ivona Cetinić, Ocean Ecologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19)