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Plankton Imaging

July 15, 2009

Satellite instruments can measure the health of the ocean’s tiny – but vital – phytoplankton.


Diagnosing the ocean from space. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

All ocean life depends on tiny plants called phytoplankton, because they’re at the bottom of the food chain. Now, researchers can check these plankton’s health with NASA satellites. Biological oceanographer Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University explains that phytoplankton release fluorescent red light as an energy waste product. A new satellite sensor called MODIS can detect that glow from space – and that’s useful.

MICHAEL BEHRENFELD (Oregon State University):
Because the amount of fluoresced light coming from plants is related to their health. When they’re stressed for certain nutrients, they give off more red light fluorescence.

For example, iron-starved plankton glow brighter than plankton with sufficient iron. Spotting changes in this red glow could alert scientists that other marine life may also be in trouble. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.