Snow blown into the Antarctic Ocean from the frozen continent has triggered an algae bloom so large and so vividly green it can be seen from space, media reports said on Monday.
The bloom, captured by Australian scientists monitoring a NASA satellite 650 kilometers above the earth, is about 100 kilometers north-to-south and 200 kilometers wide.
The snow contains minute quantities or iron that stimulates the growth of nutrients.
University of Tasmania glaciologist Mark Curran said the monster bloom had sparked a food chain starting with krill and plankton and going all the way up to seals and whales.
However, another report warns that polar warming (north and south) could poison sea life, especially at the top of both regions' food chains (see “Polar warming could poison fish and marine mammals”, below).
The bloom is thought to be phaeocystis algae, a single-cell photosynthetic algae sometimes called the “foam algae” that is present in all the world's oceans.
Curran told Australia's AAP news agency that the bloom had lasted 20 days so far and would eventually dissipate.
“They die off, things like bacteria comes through there and feeds on the material and then the material eventually will sink to the bottom of the ocean - anything that hasn't been consumed by predators higher up the food chain,” he said.
Researchers from the Australian Antarctic Division aboard the Aurora Australia research vessel hope to reach the bloom before it disappears.
The ship left the Tasmanian port of Hobart for Australia's Mawson Station in Antarctica and will pass through the bloom en route.
Polar warming could poison fish and marine mammals en masse
Polar ecosystems could be at risk from the spread of toxic cyanobacteria if the climate continues to warm, according to research published in Nature Climate Change.
Researchers studied cyanobacteria – the blue-green algae found in almost every body of water – in samples taken from the Arctic and Antarctic.
Blooms of these tiny microbes – known as cyanobacteria mats – can form in waters where there is an abundance of nutrients. These can often be seen on the surface of lakes, ponds, streams and other stretches of water.
Cyanobacteria are hugely important because of their role in 'carbon-fixing' … that is, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and helping maintain healthy oxygen levels while turning the carbon into food for other organisms.
However, some cyanobacteria can also contain toxins which can be potentially harmful for other organisms, especially animals.
While cyanobacterial mats are the main terrestrial and freshwater carbon fixers in Polar regions since the climate is too harsh for most higher plants, it was not known whether cyanobacteria here contained the toxins found in cyanobacteria in habitats elsewhere, because toxins tend to be produced by cyanobacteria in warmer waters, not in cooler climes.
Scientists took cyanobacterial samples from five locations in the Arctic and Antarctic and then exposed the samples in the lab to temperatures that could be experienced in these regions if temperatures continue to rise in the pattern seen over the last five decades.
Professor Frithjof Kuepper, Chair in Marine Biodiversity at the University of Aberdeen, was part of the international collaboration led by Julia Kleinteich, University of Konstanz, which has published its findings in Nature Climate Change.
As he said, “We were not sure beforehand whether toxin producing cyanobacteria occurred in the Arctic and Antarctic at all, but we discovered that cyanobacteria in the polar regions do indeed contain toxins.
“We also discovered through our experiments in the lab that if the temperature of the simulated environment went up, the abundance of toxins in cyanobacteria also increased.
“The fastest rates of recent climate warming have been reported for the Arctic and the marine Antarctic … the average annual temperatures increased by 0.5°C per decade during the past 50 years.
"Our data suggest that a shift in the temperature range of 8 - 16 °C, which could be reached during summer months in Polar regions with the current warming rate, is likely to affect cyanobacterial diversity and promote the presence of toxin producing species.
“In turn this could lead to profound alteration of Arctic freshwater polar ecosystems because toxic blooms are potentially harmful to other organisms, in particular animals higher up the food web.”
Clearly, we need to avoid warming effects that can alter ocean ecosystems in ways that harm the (obviously) only source of seafood … arguably the planet's most healthful protein and overall food.
SAPA. Monster algae bloom spotted in Antarctica. March 5, 2012. Accessed at http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/science/environment/monster-algae-bloom-spotted-in-antarctica-1.1249162
University of Aberdeen. Climate change could impact on polar ecosystems. February 29, 2012. Accessed at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/details-11723.php