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Ocean Ecology

"Quite simply, plankton is the foundation of our existence, and all life on Earth depends upon plankton." -The GOES Foundation
Phytoplankton are tiny plants and algae that live throughout the global ocean in the upper sunlit layer. They serve as the base of the marine food web and produce oxygen vital to life. When there are large amounts of phytoplankton in the ocean, they change the color of the water. The color we see depends on the type of phytoplankton suspended in the water.

PACE will carry NASA's most advanced color sensor ever, designed to help identify these different phytoplankton communities from space! By monitoring global phytoplankton distribution and abundance with unprecedented detail, PACE will help us to better understand the complex systems that drive ocean ecology and the health - and future - of our ocean and life on earth.

Learn more in the resources listed below about how PACE will use ocean color to learn more about ocean ecology.

Get out your (virtual) paint brush and color this interactive scene
Learn more about phytoplankton, how they are studied, and why they are important [more]
Explore how phytoplankton change from month to month around the globe
Use the mathematical constant pi to learn how light interacts with coral reefs [more]
Listen and learn about ocean ecology and NASA's PACE Mission [more]
Watch and discover how ocean color helps us learn more about ocean ecosystems
Roll the dice to travel along the marine carbon cycle from the surface to deep sea [more]
Use concept maps to explore the fascinating world of phytoplankton
Learn how tiny phytoplankton have global climate impacts in this colorful comic [more]
Ocean color comes to life
Which phytoplankton are you? Take this four question quiz to find out!
Learn how phytoplankton impact ecosystems and economies [more]
See how Kirsten Carlson's art intersects Phytopia's science [more]
Peruse phytoplankton art created by students at Evergreen State College [more]
Watch how changes in climate impact phytoplankton and the planet [more]


Yes, phytoplankton do have chlorophyll (light-absorbing green pigment within plants), but they also have other pigments that influence how they absorb and scatter light. These other pigments are called accessory pigments. They allow the phytoplankton to efficiently absorb more light, but of different colors (wavelengths) than if they had just chlorophyll pigment. So depending on how much of these pigments they each have, they can override the chlorophyll and actually make them a different color. Also, not only is the pigment content of the phytoplankton important, but also the size and shape. So the way that the light is scattered by the texture, size, and shape of that phytoplankton will also influence the color. So, they're not always green.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
First, if you work with satellite data, you're drier, and you don't get seasick! We do need the ship-based research to ground truth the satellite data. If you think about it from an ocean scientist perspective, it's just two different tools in your tool set. We can go to sea and collect information directly that allows us to develop algorithms - mathematical relationships - that ultimately connect the ocean color measurements that we sense remotely from space with the things that we want to measure in the ocean - for instance, the number and type of phytoplankton in the seawater. But then there are days when we're stuck in front of the computer and dream about the sea, and then we go to sea and dream about being dry and stuck in front of the computer.

Satellite data show us greater coverage geographically of the ocean surface. When we're on a ship, we're only hitting this (tiny) part of the ocean, but the satellite is covering the entire ocean. So ultimately, we get a lot more information from satellites, versus just data from one portion of the ocean when we're sampling on a ship.

Dr. Ivona Cetinić, Ocean Ecologist and Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
A Trichodesmium bloom in the Coral Sea
A Trichodesmium bloom in the Coral Sea (September 1, 2019). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
Yes, it has an impact not only on ocean color (because there are sediments there and it's going to affect the scattering and absorption that we see in the water column) but there have been some studies that have looked at the iron input from those Saharan dust storms into the Gulf of Mexico and the middle of the Atlantic that might actually stimulate things like Trichodesmium (a type of cyanobacterium that likes iron). So that iron that comes from the Saharan Desert will actually stimulate them to grow. So yes, it can have an impact on phytoplankton.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
Karen brevis, magnified 20x
Karen brevis, magnified 20x.
There are. Trichodesmium forms little strands and group together to form colonies (1-10 mm in length). And when you're out at sea - and we've both seen this ourselves - they actually form what we call sawdust on the (ocean) surface and you can see that with the naked eye. Another dinoflagellate, Karenia braves - if there's a high enough concentration of it in a bottle - you can see the little balls swimming around. They're about the size of Alexandrium (another dinoflagellate, 0.018 - 0.045 mm) which you can almost see with the naked eye.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
I grow my own monocultures (= one species only) of various types of phytoplankton in one of our labs here at Goddard. Basically, every two to three weeks, I make fresh growth mediums (dissolved vitamins, minerals, and nutrients - all they need to survive - mixed in with seawater), and I transfer the phytoplankton cultures to the new medium. After a while the cells use up all the nutrients and start to die, just like in the ocean, so you have to replenish their nutrients. So every few weeks I have to put them in new seawater with nutrients. So far they haven't needed any waves to survive in stationary flasks.

There are places where you can buy starter cultures and grow them yourself. I did see an advertisement for bioluminescent phytoplankton (organisms that produce their own light). Otherwise, when scientists collect phytoplankton to make into a monoculture, they have to go out to sea and individually isolate different cells and then start growing them.

Aimee Neeley, Oceanographer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
Red tides are one example of a harmful algal bloom and they are responsible for contaminating shell fisheries, closing beaches, and fish kills. So, of course they're very very critical to getting a handle on. It's not always possible to visit the shore when you think these might happen. The satellites play an incredibly important role in identifying where these occur, when they're happening, and the duration of their occurrence so that this information can feed back into management decisions and watershed activities to try and prevent a future occurrence of this. So the answer to your question is yes.

Dr. Jeremy Werdell, PACE Project Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (30-Apr-19).
Phytoplankton and blue-green algae blooms in the Baltic Sea
Phytoplankton and blue-green algae blooms in the Baltic Sea (July 23, 2018). More frequent and massive blooms, combined with warming seas due to climate change, are making it harder for fish and other marine life to thrive in this basin. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
There are many studies looking at the impact of climate change on the oceans, and ultimately on ocean life. Many of them are looking at the impact climate change has on phytoplankton diversity and abundance. Scientists have seen over the last few years changes in the way that the land interacts with the ocean - increases in land-based input through rivers, and processes associated with agriculture, and so on - which we see results in more abundant blooms in the coastal ocean, especially harmful algal blooms (plankton blooms that have the capacity to cause physical injury, or other negative outcomes, when they reproduce quickly and have high concentrations in seawater).

Dr. Ivona Cetinić, Ocean Ecologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (15-May-19).
Twenty years of global biosphere
This data visualization shows a global representation of Earth’s plant life both in the ocean and on land from September 1997 through September 2017. Credit: NASA/GSFC.
Yes, and in fact that was one of the original reasons for developing ocean color from space technology. When you look at a place - again, going back to this visualization one more time, which if you couldn't tell is pretty much my absolute favorite - look in the northern (Atlantic) ocean between the United States and Europe, and you'll notice there that there are a lot of those rich reds and yellows that I was talking about that appear and disappear (over time). So again, we're looking for phytoplankton, and we're looking for what effectively is "fish food" in a way. Phytoplankton are eaten by bigger plankton that are then eaten by fish, and the chain of life continues. By using satellite imagery to see where there's a lot of this algal biomass in our water bodies, we are effectively able to make predictions about where successful fishing might occur.

Dr. Jeremy Werdell, PACE Project Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beyond Blue: Why Ocean Color Really Matters (30-Apr-19).