Researchers have conducted the first global analysis of the health and productivity of ocean plants, as revealed by a unique signal detected by a NASA satellite. Ocean scientists can now remotely measure the amount of fluorescent red light emitted by ocean phytoplankton and assess how efficiently the microscopic plants are turning sunlight and nutrients into food through photosynthesis. They can also study how changes in the global environment alter these processes, which are at the center of the ocean food web.
Single-celled phytoplankton fuel nearly all ocean ecosystems, serving as the most basic food source for marine animals from zooplankton to fish to shellfish. In fact, phytoplankton account for half of all photosynthetic activity on Earth. The health of these marine plants affects commercial fisheries, the amount of carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb, and how the ocean responds to climate change.
"This is the first direct measurement of the health of the phytoplankton in the ocean," said Michael Behrenfeld, a biologist who specializes in marine plants at the Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. "We have an important new tool for observing changes in phytoplankton every week, all over the planet."
The findings were published this month in the journal Biogeosciences and presented at a news briefing on May 28.
Over the past two decades, scientists have employed various satellite sensors to measure the amount and distribution of the green pigment chlorophyll, an indicator of the amount of plant life in the ocean. But with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite, scientists have now observed "red-light fluorescence" over the open ocean.
"Chlorophyll gives us a picture of how much phytoplankton is present," said Scott Doney, a marine chemist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a co-author of the paper. "Fluorescence provides insight into how well
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NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center