Phytoplankton have done it again! Once more, our favorite little microorganisms are making scientific history, this time by helping researchers understand the “boom-and-bust” cycle of polar ocean plants. Data regarding the growth cycles of phytoplankton is giving scientists new insights into the management of global ocean ecosystems. And NASA scientists are discovering all these links between phytoplankton and oceanic health with cool technology involving Lasers. Lasers and phytoplankton? Sign us up!
The researchers discovered a link between phytoplankton growth and its predators. For instance, blooms occur when phytoplankton experience rapid growth in population, and it was believed that the blooms would decrease due to their natural life cycle. However, scientists noticed that blooms actually decrease because predators begin to feed on phytoplankton as soon as the accelerated growth stops.
Understanding the boom-and-bust cycle of phytoplankton is important to the maintenance of ocean ecosystems since much of the ocean’s wildlife is dependent on the plankton for survival. Protecting the lower portion of the ocean food chain, like phytoplankton, ensures that marine life around the world will thrive.
Just as amazing as the data being collected is the method of how the research is conducted. Researchers are using NASA’s giant laser, the Cloud-Aerosol LIdar with Orthogonal Polarization (CALIOP), which is mounted on the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) satellite. Gotta love backronyms!
Prior to using the CALIOP laser, scientists would measure the amount of sunlight reflected from the ocean surface to monitor phytoplankton growth. This method is disadvantageous because research can only be conducted during clear daylight hours. However, because the CALIOP laser illuminates the ocean surface it allows scientists to monitor phytoplankton day or night, and the laser beam even shoots through some clouds.
Researchers have been able to collect more consistent data because of the CALIOP laser’s ability to illuminate the ocean’s surface. The laser has proved to be so valuable that scientists are working on new lidar technology that will give researchers better data of how phytoplankton are distributed through the sunlit layer the ocean. This data will give a better understanding regarding the causes of phytoplankton blooms by providing more information about phytoplankton concentrations and photosynthesis.