Tiny sea creatures hold secrets to earth’s climate

NASA's research mission will study the phytoplankton bloom and how they impact the atmosphere.
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NASA's NAAMES mission began its final mission to conduct an integrated study of all four distinct phases of the phytoplankton bloom and how they impact the atmosphere. Above - a view of the Atlantis, seaborne research vessel for the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study.

NASA's NAAMES mission began its final mission to conduct an integrated study of all four distinct phases of the phytoplankton bloom and how they impact the atmosphere. Above - a view of the Atlantis, seaborne research vessel for the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study.

Each new season brings change. Seasonal change on land is something that we’re familiar with and adjust to regularly. But what happens to billions of plankton in the ocean each season? How do they adjust to changing sunlight patterns and mixing of the water column? And what impact do these tiny critters have on us, so far away on land?

To answer those questions and others, NASA’s North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) mission began its fourth and final deployment, making it the first research mission to conduct an integrated study of all four distinct phases of the world’s largest phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic and how they impact the atmosphere.

For those unaware, planktons are the diverse collection of organisms that live in large bodies of water and are unable to swim against a current. They provide a crucial source of food to many large aquatic organisms, such as fish and whales. Claiming that most scientists studying the bloom head to sea during its climax in late spring and early summer, NAAMES Deputy Project Scientist Rich Moore said, “We did that, but we also went out during the other seasons to fully capture the minimum and transitions of the bloom." 

NAAMES research challenges traditional ideas about bloom dynamics and species succession. During previous NAAMES deployments, researchers completed 220 research hours aboard an instrumented C-130 aircraft along specific tracks and manoeuvres over the North Atlantic, including fly overs of the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute’s (WHOI) Research Vessel Atlantis, which carries more than 50 researchers and crew members.

Planktons are the diverse collection of organisms that live in large bodies of water and are unable to swim against a current.

Planktons are the diverse collection of organisms that live in large bodies of water and are unable to swim against a current.

The ongoing ship deployment is currently collecting observations of ocean biological composition and stocks, aerosol measurements and optical properties of the North Atlantic study area. 

The final NAAMES study researches the “ascending transition” of the bloom, which occurs after the phytoplankton minimum in February and provides a unique opportunity for researchers aboard Atlantis to do experiments that study growth and decay of the phytoplankton population, the Space agency said in a press advisory. Rates of phytoplankton accumulation are critical for understanding the ocean conditions that lead to phytoplankton growth and its timing, a key to unlocking the environmental drivers and controls of biological dynamics. 

According to NASA, because scientists are also interested in the link between the ocean, atmospheric particles and clouds, they’ve conducted meteorological balloon launches from the ship on a regular basis to capture information relevant to cloud formation processes. By combining global data from NASA satellites with the ship, aircraft, and autonomous assets such as floats, along with laboratory research and balloon data, scientists are able to not only understand the current state of the atmosphere, but also how it is evolving over time.

The implication of these findings will be presented in a series of journal publications over the coming year.