Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Crazy Green" Algae Pools Seen in Antarctic Sea


"Crazy green" pools teeming with life have been found among remote Antarctic sea ice, scientists say—and they may be a global warming boon.

Observed in the little-studied Amundsen Sea (see map), the brilliant blooms owe their colors to chlorophyll, a pigment in various types of phytoplankton, or tiny algae. Algae-eating zooplankton, small crustaceans called krill, and fish and shrimp larvae also thrive in the area.

A recent scientific expedition studied the blooms while plying the Amundsen Sea's polynya, a region of seasonally open water surrounded by sea ice.

Often hundreds of miles wide, polynyas are nutrient-rich "oases" that offer refuges for animals big and small, according to Patricia Yager, chief scientist for the Amundsen Sea Polynya International Research Expedition (ASPIRE), which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.

The open pockets occur for two reasons: because wind blows chunks of ice away from the coast, and because warm air or an upwelling of warmer water melts sections of ice away. (Related: "New Zealand Earthquake Spurs Giant Glacier Collapse.")

When summer sea ice melts, it can release micronutrients into the ocean that supercharge algae blooms. Micronutrients are trace amounts of elements, such as iron, that are essential for plant growth.


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