Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry blog

Showing posts with label plankton blooms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plankton blooms. Show all posts

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Exploring the shelf seas – hunting the spring bloom

Alex Poulton, National Oceanography Centre

After almost a week since arriving and saying farewell to the benthic (sea floor) scientists from DY021, the RRS Discovery sailed out of Southampton just after lunchtime on the 1st April on the second of this year’s Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry cruises. This cruise has a slightly different flavour to the last one – our focus is on the organisms living in the upper water column (pelagic), not in or around the bottom sediments. We hope to sample the plankton, tiny marine organisms that live in the water column, during one of the key periods in the seasonal diary of life in the ocean: the spring bloom. During spring, as temperatures get warmer and days get longer, phytoplankton, the tiny plants that form the base of the marine food chain have a growth spurt. This rapid increase in biomass provides a ready meal for the myriad of grazers present, and in this way the spring bloom fuels the food chain up to fish and beyond. To fuel this rapid growth, nutrients are required and the spring bloom rapidly diminishes the nutrient levels that have been present through the cold and dark winter. 

Picture 1 : 
The position of the Candyfloss site is shown on top of a satellite image (courtesy of NEODAAS) of chlorophyll (a pigment used for photosynthesis by marine plants, or phytoplankton) from late March. Colour changes from deep purple to green and yellow are indicative of increasing biomass of phytoplankton. Eventually patches of red will appear indicating that the spring bloom is well underway. 

Across the four weeks of this cruise we will travel to various sites within the Celtic Sea in order to build up a time-series of observations of the spring bloom as it happens, in terms of how it changes the water chemistry, how its biological components (bacteria, plants and animals) interact with one another, and how the physical environment of a shelf sea influences its formation and structure. To do all this work takes a huge team of scientists and technicians, and a top of the range research ship manned by skilled and experienced crew. Onboard we have 30 scientists and technicians, from nine different research institutes and universities across the UK. 

Picture 2 : 
One of the key sampling instruments for the cruise – a CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) probe with large grey bottles attached for collecting sea water returning to the surface with the first of our samples. (Picture by Jose Lozano).

ince sailing from Southampton on the 1st April we have been making our way out to one of our key sites for the next few weeks: ‘CANDYFLOSS’ or the ‘Central Celtic Sea’ (Picture 1). This evening we briefly stopped to test some of the sampling equipment we use to collect water – a CTD (oceanographic instrument used to determine the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the ocean, see Picture 2 below). Our ETA is around lunchtime tomorrow, after a short stop at first light to pick up one of the gliders that has been monitoring conditions out here for the last few weeks. When we arrive at CANDYFLOSS, work will begin in earnest as we recover the moored instruments which we left here last November, put new batteries in them, download the data they have recorded, and plonk them back in again. As always on a ship, tomorrow is going to be a long day.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Springtime phytoplankton blooms in the Celtic Sea

Louis Byrne, British Oceanographic Data Centre, NOC

The seasonal changes in the Celtic Sea primarily revolve around the development of water column stratification in spring and when it breaks down in late summer to early autumn.  Right now in March, the Celtic Sea is fully mixed, however with the days getting longer and warmer (we hope), the surface of the Celtic Sea is also warming. As the surface warms its density decreases and the water becomes lighter compared to the colder waters below which don’t have access to the suns heat. (Fig 1.) To help watch for these changes we have a daily set of sea surface chlorophyll and temperature satellite images sent from the NEODAAS team at PML to the ship, and any developments of blooms and changes to the temperature can be seen as they occur.

Fig. 1: Temperature profiles in the mid latitudes in the ocean. Dashed (- - - -) line is for the winter and the continuous line for the summer season

This will eventually result in the creation of two distinct bodies of water, with a warm surface layer resting above a colder layer below, much like a cocktail which often have two or three coloured layers sitting on top of one another.

As well as causing the onset in stratification, the increase in temperature and sunlight also causes a truly massive increase in the number of phytoplankton in an event known as a plankton bloom [many plankton blooms are so large they can be seen from space! (see Fig.2)]. This results in a feeding frenzy as zooplankton (Fig. 3) numbers surge and they are in turn eaten by other organisms, passing the energy down the food web.

Fig. 2: Plankton Bloom in the Celtic Sea. Captured by the Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) on 23 May 2010. Credits ESA

The phytoplankton bloom starts just before the onset of stratification, and then continues in the surface layer as the water there is warmer and receives much more sunlight. Eventually the phytoplankton will use all of the nutrients available in the surface layer and most of the plankton will die off. When this happens their cells will fall through the water column, causing a large increase in the biological material available on the seabed.

"Copepodkils". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
When stratification breaks down at the end of summer, the water column in the Celtic Sea is again fully mixed. The bottom layer of water is still nutrient rich and these nutrients are also mixed into the surface of the water column, and become available for photosynthesis. This causes a smaller phytoplankton bloom at the end of summer before the days darken, and the cycle is complete.