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NASA study finds snow melt causes large ocean plant blooms

ince 1997, a reduction in snow has led to wider temperature differences between the land and ocean during summer. As a consequence, sea surface winds over the Arabian Sea have strengthened leading to more intense upwelling and more widespread blooms of phytoplankton along the coasts of Somalia, Yemen and Oman.

According to Goes, while large blooms of phytoplankton can enhance fisheries, exceptionally large blooms could be detrimental to the ecosystem. Increases in phytoplankton amounts can lead to oxygen depletion in the water column and eventually to a decline in fish populations.

The Arabian Sea hosts one of the world's largest pools of oxygen-poor water at depths between 200 and 1,000 meters (656 to 3,281 feet). Since the Arabian Sea lacks an opening to the north, the deeper waters are not well ventilated. Also when organic matter produced by phytoplankton breaks down and decomposes, more oxygen gets consumed in the process. An increase in phytoplankton could therefore cause oxygen deficiencies in the Arabian Sea to spread, leading to fish mortality.

Oxygen-depleted waters also provide the perfect environment for the growth of a specialized group of bacteria called denitrifying bacteria. These bacteria convert a nitrogen-based nutrient readily consumable by plants in seawater, called nitrate, into forms of nitrogen that most plants cannot use.

One form of nitrogen that plants cannot consume is nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. In the atmosphere, nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Thus, as very large phytoplankton blooms deplete more oxygen from the water, the creation of nitrous oxide in the Arabian Sea could exacerbate climate change, Goes said.


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Contact: Gretchen Cook-Anderson
gcookand@hq.nasa.gov
202-358-0836
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
21-Apr-2005


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