Vivid NASA Image Shows Huge, Swirling Plankton Blooms Off the Pacific Coast

Green areas are rich in chlorophyll, which is produced by the tiny organisms that feed life in the ocean

Miles above the Pacific Ocean's blue waters, it's hard to see the microscopic creatures that make life on Earth possible. But turn on a couple of filters on your satellite feed and whoosh, the ocean is suddenly a churning mass of life.

That's what NASA is showing in this composite image taken last month: blooms of plankton drifting in the California Current from Canada to Mexico, some eddies the size of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

"It's just really pretty, isn't it?" said professor David A. Siegel, director of the Earth Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Tools aboard the Suomi NPP satellite captured the images that NASA's Earth Observatory stitched together to make the composite above. Areas rich in chlorophyll, the molecule that plants and the microscopic phytoplankton use to generate oxygen, are green, according to Siegel, who studies ocean color and works with satellites. Blue areas have less chlorophyll.

"What's really special about this is all the wiggles and the variability and other stiff," Siegel said, all of which shows "a highly turbulent ocean that is mixing waters that are very productive and green inshore with waters that are much less productive offshore."

Tiny floating creatures that can be plants, bacteria or other organisms, phytoplankton are at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen used all over the planet while serving as prey for the small fish, shrimp and animal-based plankton that feed whales and other ocean life. NASA says this ecosystem can extend out from the coast as far as 300 miles.

The eddies seen in the NASA image are hotspots, Siegel said, where animals might be found foraging for food.

The eddies are caused by the California Current, which stirs together warm water near shore with cold, nutrient-rich water from deeper in the ocean as it drives south along the coast toward the equator, according to NASA. That process of upwelling fertilizes water along the coast, though NASA noted that it's also impacted by El Nino, when warmer-than-usual water lessens the amount of upwelling that takes place.

And NASA cautioned that global warming could, according to some recent research, intensify upwelling and affect what life can survive amid those green eddies. "Some changes are already underway, as other research projects have detected a decline in the abundance of zooplankton in the region," NASA writer and researcher Mike Carlowicz wrote.

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