GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — Think about the food chain, something many of us learned about in elementary school. On land, plants are the first link in the chain. But in the sea, phytoplankton fuel life.
Phytoplankton are one of the smallest organisms in the world, but with one of the biggest impacts on life. Also known as the ‘grass of the sea’ or microalgae, they play a critical role in life on Earth. Through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide, provide nutrients for other animals and even produce oxygen.
In fact, scientists believe phytoplankton are responsible for making up to 50% of the oxygen we breathe.
When they bloom, these tiny ocean drifters can cover hundreds to thousands of square miles of the ocean surface, meaning they are often visible from space.
When ice melts in the Arctic or Antarctic, it leaves behind a layer of freshwater full of nutrients on the ocean surface. Microalgae use these minerals to develop, flourish in the spring with ample sunlight and provide food for all the other animals in the sea.
In Iceland, although there is normally plenty of nutrients, volcanic ash increases iron, which microorganisms feed on. In Patagonia, dust blowing from the land mixed with the ocean’s complex circulation has allowed phytoplankton to thrive, creating one of the world’s best fisheries.
The Baltic Sea sees blooms nearly every summer, with satellite imagery capturing swirling patterns as phytoplankton trace the sea’s currents and eddies.
Phytoplankton not only sustain ocean life but are crucial to the global carbon cycle. Plus, they are also quite beautiful.