The Met Office, in conjunction with our partners at NASA, have managed to get some stunning satellite pictures of phytoplankton blooms in parts of the North Sea. This natural phenomenon has been occurring through much of June and into July. However, there have been very few days where we have had cloud free skies over the North Sea, as highlighted in our June monthly statistics. As a result there have not been many opportunities to capture images of the blooms, but those we have are very impressive.
The images in question come from NASA Terra and NOAA/NASA Suomi satellites. These are polar orbiting satellites, meaning that they circle the Earth passing over the north and south poles. Several times a day these satellites pass over the UK gathering, and then beaming down to us, a huge amount of meteorological data. One of the products we can create from this data is a true colour image so we can see the land, sea and clouds from space as they would appear to the human eye. One of the many interesting things we sometimes see in this imagery is blooms of phytoplankton in the seas around the UK.
Dr. Robert McEwan, Met Office Marine Ecosystem Modelling Scientist, said: “The light patches seen in the North Sea are due to large blooms of microscopic phytoplankton which occur every year as light levels increase and the essential nutrients required for growth become optimal. The milky colour of the water indicates that these blooms contain coccolithophores, which are covered in tiny calcified scales that scatter light allowing the bloom to be seen from space. Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food chain and are therefore very important to the health of commercial fisheries.”
These blooms are common at this time of the year due to the increased amount of sunlight due to the longer days. These coccolithophore blooms are not toxic and pose no danger to marine life or humans. The duration of the blooms vary depending on sea conditions, nutrient availability and predation but could be expected to last from a couple of weeks up to a month. Bloom sizes also vary depending on a physical and biogeochemical conditions, so whilst this bloom might increase in size, it may also have peaked. It’s tricky to compare chlorophyll concentrations directly with satellite imagery but it looks like this bloom might have declined already.
As well as being wonderful images to look at, this is another example of how satellite imagery and the Met Office Space Programme are helping to drive forward scientific research and forecast accuracy.