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NASA just beamed down an incredible photo of Earth taken via satellite, but what is it exactly?

While your first guesses might be pollution or some kind of chemical, this is actually a natural phenomenon that takes place twice a year. What you’re looking at is the Atlantic Ocean hosting a massive phytoplankton bloom. Practically billions (if not more) of these creatures are spawning in the water, leaving it with a greenish-hue. And don’t let their microscopic size fool you, these things actually form the foundation of the underwater food chain.

The reason NASA is taking an interest in them, however, is much more interesting. The agency believes phytoplankton play a role in carbon cycling. Through the process of photosynthesis, these tiny creatures can actually consume as much carbon dioxide as forests. Phytoplankton are sometimes referred to as a “biological carbon pump” because they can transport these gases to deeper parts of the ocean, whether because they died or because they were eaten by a predator.

As a result, researchers want to see if tiny phytoplankton actually have the power to influence clouds and climate. The space agency has actually been observing these blooms for some time. Here is another image it released from 2004:

NASA

Unfortunately, all researchers will say for sure is that the image of these phytoplankton shows a link between ocean physics and biology…whatever that means.

“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 ecologist Michael Behrenfeld said in a statement.

For now, we guess we’ll sit back and enjoy the pretty image. But remember phytoplankton, because they may have a lot more to do with global warming than we realize.