Monitoring Marine Life in the Atlantic, From Water and From Orbit

Jul 22, 2014

"You can actually see marine organisms from space."
Mike Behrenfeld

NASA has begun a new experiment to monitor plankton off the Atlantic coast using boats, airplanes, and satellites.

When you think about researching the ocean, your mind probably doesn't immediately jump to stuff orbiting the earth, but here's something interesting: "A lot of people don't realize that you can actually see marine organisms from space," said Mike Behrenfeld, professor at Oregon State University, and one of several scientists involved in an experiment called SABOR

"What we're detecting is the color and the brightness of the ocean," said Behrenfeld, "and that tells us about what are called the marine plankton. That includes bacteria -- microscopic plants called phytoplankton. All of these organisms are really important for the healthy functioning of the Earth."

Behrenfeld said that's because phytoplankton off the coast of Connecticut and other Atlantic states are the base of the marine food chain. He said SABOR will pilot new technology on airplanes that could one day help scientists get a better look at the ocean from orbit. "We're testing technologies that essentially provide a new set of glasses," he said. "These glasses help us see better through the atmosphere to the oceans. They allow us to see deeper into the water column."

In Long Island Sound, phytoplankton blooms fueled by nitrogen pollution have contributed to so-called "hypoxia dead zones," which make it hard for marine life to survive. NASA is hopeful the SABOR experiment will ultimately allow scientists to improve satellite-based estimates of how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean.

Researchers from the University of Rhode Island, aboard the National Science Foundation's Research Vessel Endeavor, will be contributing to the study.