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NASA satellite sees ocean plants increase, coasts greening

A few years ago, NASA researcher Watson Gregg published a study showing that tiny free-floating ocean plants called phytoplankton had declined in abundance globally by 6 percent between the 1980s and 1990s. A new study by Gregg and his co-authors suggests that trend may not be continuing, and new patterns are taking place.

Why is this important? Well, the tiny ocean plants help regulate our atmosphere and the health of our oceans. Phytoplankton produce half of the oxygen generated by plants on Earth. They also can soften the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. In addition, phytoplankton serve as the base of the ocean food chain, so their abundance determines the overall health of ocean ecosystems. Given their importance, it makes sense that scientists would want to closely track trends in phytoplankton numbers and in how they are distributed around the world.

Gregg and his colleagues published their new study in a recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The researchers used NASA satellite data from 1998 to 2003 to show that phytoplankton amounts have increased globally by more than 4 percent. These increases have mainly occurred along the coasts. No significant changes were seen in phytoplankton concentrations within the global open oceans, but phytoplankton levels declined in areas near the center of the oceans, the mid-ocean gyres. Mid-ocean gyres are "ocean deserts", which can only support low amounts of phytoplankton. When viewed by satellite, these phytoplankton-deprived regions look deep-blue, while in aquatic regions where plant life thrives, the water appears greener.

"The ocean deserts are getting bluer and the coasts are getting greener," said Gregg, an oceanographer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Greenbelt, Md. "The study suggests there may be changes occurring in the biology of the oceans, especially in the coast regions."

Phytoplankton amounts have
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Contact: Rob Gutro
rgutro@pop900.gsfc.nasa.gov
301-286-4044
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
3-Mar-2005


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