Studying the tiny life of phytoplankton

Phytoplankton. Have you ever heard of them? At NASA, these
tiny organisms are kind of a big deal.


Biodiversity in the ocean is a delicate, but essential
balance for life on Earth. One way NASA
studies this balance is by observing phytoplankton – microalgae that contain
chlorophyll, require light to grow, and form the base of the marine food chain.

Phytoplankton even have an essential role in an upcoming
NASA mission.

This mission is called PACE- “Plankton, Aerosol,
Cloud, ocean Ecosystem.” It will reveal interactions between the ocean and
atmosphere, including how they exchange carbon dioxide and how atmospheric
aerosols might fuel phytoplankton growth in the surface ocean.

Here are four areas main areas the mission will focus on as
part of #WorldOceansMonth.

Harmful algal blooms: Not the good kind of bloom

The word “bloom” sounds pretty, but harmful algal blooms
(HABs) are anything but.

When an ocean region is rich in nutrients – think of it as adding
fertilizer to the ocean –  phytoplankton such
as cyanobacteria multiply much faster than usual. This is called a “bloom.”

Some blooms are smelly and ugly but harmless. Others, like
HABs, release toxins into the water that can make fish, shellfish, turtles and
even humans very sick.

NASA’s PACE mission will help track phytoplankton growth
and ocean health to make sure all of us stay healthy, balanced and blooming. In
a good way.

Aerosols: The sea-sky connection

What do phytoplankton and clouds have in common? More than
you might think.

PACE will also study aerosols, which are any particles or
droplets suspended in our atmosphere. Humans create aerosols, like soot or car
exhaust, but some phytoplankton release aerosols too.

For example, dust – also an aerosol – can blow into the
ocean, depositing iron that helps phytoplankton grow. These phytoplankton then
release dimethyl sulfide, a gas that turns into an aerosol, which can influence
how clouds form.

Whether the aerosols in our atmosphere come from the ocean
or land, it’s important to know how they are impacting our environment. PACE
will help clear up some of our questions about what is in our air.

3. Biodiversity:
The more, the merrier

A healthy ocean supports healthy industries and economies,
contributes to a healthy atmosphere and helps keep plants, animals and humans
healthy and happy. One key to a healthy, balanced ocean is lots of biodiversity.

Biodiversity means having a wide variety of plant and
animal species in an ecosystem. It’s important to have many different species
of phytoplankton, because each species plays a different role in processing
carbon, providing food for tiny animals, and keeping the ocean healthy.

PACE will track the size and movements of phytoplankton
populations from space to help our seas stay diverse and bountiful.

Fisheries: Phytoplankton feed fish feed friends

One simple reason for tracking the ocean’s health is that
fish eat tiny animals that eat phytoplankton, and people eat fish.

Fisheries and aquaculture support about 12 percent of jobs
around the world, including employing more than 3 million people in the United
States. By better understanding our ocean’s health and how it might change in
the future, we can make predictions about impacts to our economies and food

To learn more about phytoplankton, visit our website.

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