Phytoplankton Bloom Turns North Atlantic Ocean Into Vincent Van Gogh Painting

This fall, the North Atlantic Ocean was transformed into swirling mass of brilliant color that could've been the handiwork of Vincent Van Gogh. No human artist is responsible for this art work, however, but a bloom of phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are algae-like microscopic marine plant life that derives energy from sunlight. When they bloom, they release organic molecules into the seawater, and this fall's bloom was large enough to be seen from space, Discovery and United Press International reported.

The image was snapped on September 23 using a camera on a weather satellite called the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, which is outfitted with an imaging tool called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS); this can collect visible and infrared imagery. The satellite was launched and is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA acquired and released the image.

Phytoplankton bloom usually in spring and summer, but they are known to display their colors in fall. Trouble is, the weather usually doesn't cooperate and cloud cover shields the remarkable sight. Luckily this year, the satellite was able to capture the phytoplankton bloom through an advantageous gap in the clouds.

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In order to create this artful masterpiece of a photograph, NASA conducted a bit technological handiwork. That special VIIRS imaging tool had captured red, green, and blue infrared bands, and this data was combined with additional info about the levels of chlorophyll that were present in the North Atlantic at the time of the phytoplankton bloom.

"The image does a beautiful job of showing the close link between ocean physics and biology," said Michael Behrenfeld, a phytoplankton ecologist. "The features that jump out so clearly represent the influence of ocean eddies and physical stirring on the concentration of phytoplankton pigments and, possibly, colored dissolved organic matter."

Phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean's food web. According to NOAA, they feed whales, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish, and float near the surface of the ocean so they can capture sunlight. They also need nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur, and then turn these into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

There are two types -- the kind with a tail that it uses to move through the water, and the kind that can only move around at the mercy of the ocean currents.

They bloom in spring and summer when the air is warm and sunlight is abundant, which helps the plant life multiply. And, of course, the North Atlantic will experience a bloom in the fall as well, but these are harder to capture. Most photos taken of a phytoplankton bloom occur in spring.

"A lot of what we don't know about ocean ecology has to do with the difficulty of sampling the ocean, whether it be from a storm-tossed ship or from a cloud-obstructed satellite," said Norman Kuring, an ocean scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

A phytoplankton bloom isn't just effected by the weather. The ebb and flow of minerals in the water, ocean currents, and other factors also determine where they appear and how large they grow.

The phenomenon also plays an important role in the environment. According to NASA, a phytoplankton bloom aid carbon cycling and influence clouds and climate.

After they captured the amazing sight in the Atlantic, scientists quickly headed over to that particular band of the Atlantic and took measures via ship and aircraft. This data will be combined with the satellite and ocean sensor data so that scientists can learn more about phytoplankton blooms and their relationship to the environment, a NASA researcher, Rich Moore, told Discovery.

In fact, if phytoplankton get too many nutrients and their growth gets out of control, these harmful algal blooms (HABs) can actually be harmful and produce toxic compounds that harm fish, shellfish, mammals, birds, and people.

[Photo via YouTube]