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Scientists discover new trigger for immense North Atlantic plankton bloom
Date:7/6/2012

On this July 4th week, U.S. beachgoers are thronging their way to seaside resorts and parks to celebrate with holiday fireworks.

Across the horizon and miles out to sea toward the north, the Atlantic Ocean's own spring and summer ritual is unfolding: the blooming of countless microscopic plant plankton, or phytoplankton.

In what's known as the North Atlantic Bloom, an immense number of phytoplankton burst into color, first "greening" then "whitening" the sea as one species follows another.

In research results published in this week's issue of the journal Science, scientists report evidence of what triggers this huge bloom.

Whirlpools, or eddies, swirl across the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean sustaining phytoplankton in the ocean's shallower waters where they can get plenty of sunlight to fuel their growth, keeping them from being pushed downward by the ocean's rough surface.

The result is a burst of spring and summer color atop the ocean's waters.

How important is the bloom to the North Atlantic Ocean and beyond--to the global carbon cycle?

Much like forests, springtime blooms of microscopic plants in the ocean absorb enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, emitting oxygen via photosynthesis.

Their growth contributes to the oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide, amounting globally to about one-third of the carbon dioxide humans put into the air each year through the burning of fossil fuels.

The North Atlantic is critical to this process; it's responsible for more than 20 percent of the ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide.

An important scientific question is how this "biological pump" for carbon might change in the future as Earth's climate evolves.

In winter, strong winds generate mixing that pushes phytoplankton into deeper waters, robbing them of sunlight but drawing up nutrients from the depths. As winter turns to spring, days are longer and plankton are
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert  

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