The National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) has announced that it found a huge ‘forest’ of algae under the Arctic Ocean, a discovery they say is equivalent to finding a rainforest in a desert.
A giant bloom of phytoplankton some 62 miles in length was found under the north Alaskan ice last year. Scientists had assumed the three-foot ice was too thick to allow for the growth of plants, but according to NASA scientists four times more of the phytoplankton was found under the ice than in nearby ice-free water. Here is a photo of Phytoplankton off the coast of Denmark, taken from the air:
Researchers expected that, as in years past, the waters beneath the ice would have minimal amounts of chlorophyll — the fluorescing hallmark of photosynthetic marine plants. Instead, they observed the opposite. As the ship broke further into the ice, chlorophyll in the dark waters below shot up to levels rarely observed even in the most productive ocean regions. It became evident that there was a phytoplankton bloom of astonishing magnitude happening under the ice.
Phytoplankton comes from the Greek words φυτόν (phyton), meaning “plant” and πλαγκτός (planktos), meaning “wanderer” or “drifter”.Most phytoplankton are too small to be individually seen with the naked eye. However, when present in high enough numbers, they may appear as a green discoloration of the water due to the presence of chlorophyll within their cells (although the actual color may vary with the species of phytoplankton present due to varying levels of chlorophyll or the presence of other pigment).
Long thought to be relatively devoid of much life, the Arctic waters were “richer in microscopic marine plants, essential to all sea life, than any other ocean region on Earth” according to NASA
Phytoplankton is thought to be responsible for about as much oxygen as all of the land plants on Earth – but was only discovered in the 1970s.
It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. Scientists now believe that pools of melting ice actually function like skylights and magnifying glasses, focusing sunlight into sea water, providing the perfect conditions for the intense phytoplankton bloom, which makes the water look like pea soup.
It was a serendipitous discovery for scientists who, as part of NASA’s ICESCAPE program, were studying the impact of climate change in the Chukchi sea, where melt season changes are pronounced. Making their way through meter-thick ice aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker “Healy” in July last year, scientists observed surprising amounts of fluorescing chlorophyll, indicating the presence of photosynthesizing plant life.
“The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic’s warming climate and provides an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology,” NASA said.
The type of phytoplankton found near coasts can bloom rapidly when there are changes to the amounts of light and nutrients available. Some blooms are toxic for humans and marine life. If the Arctic sea ice continues to thin with global warming, blooms might become more widespread and appear earlier, which could pose problems for animals such as migrating birds and whales.
A form of phytoplankton can be seen here off the south coast of England: