[ skip to content ]


Whenever a hurricane races across the Atlantic Ocean, chances are phytoplankton will bloom behind it. According to a new study using NASA satellite data, these phytoplankton blooms may also affect the Earth's climate and carbon cycle.

Research scientist Jerry Wiggert in the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University was part of a research team led by Steven Babin, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, that studied 13 North Atlantic hurricanes between 1998 and 2001. Ocean color data from the SeaWiFS instrument on the SeaStar satellite were used to analyze levels of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. The satellite images showed tiny microscopic ocean plants, called phytoplankton, bloomed following the storms.

"Some parts of the ocean are like deserts, because there isn't enough food for many plants to grow. A hurricane's high winds stir up the ocean waters and help bring nutrients and phytoplankton to the surface, where they get more sunlight, allowing the plants to bloom," Babin said.

"The physical response of the ocean to hurricanes is complex," added Wiggert. "No one has considered the biological contribution to the altered carbon flux balance that takes place when hurricanes pass over oceans."

Previous research has relied largely on sporadic, incomplete data from ships to understand how and when near-surface phytoplankton bloom. "This effect of hurricanes in ocean deserts has not been seen before. We believe it is the first documented satellite observation of this phenomenon in the wake of hurricanes," Babin noted. "Because 1998 was the first complete Atlantic hurricane season observed by SeaWiFS, we first noticed this effect in late 1998 after looking at hurricane Bonnie," Babin said.

The study found the physical make-up of a storm, including its size, strength and forward speed, is directly related to the amount of phytoplankton that blooms. Bigger storms appear to cause larger phytoplankton blooms. An increased amount of phytoplankton should have more chlorophyll, which satellite sensors can see.

Hurricane-induced upwelling, the rising of cooler nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, is also critical in phytoplankton growth. For two to three weeks following almost every storm, the satellite data showed enhanced phytoplankton growth. Babin and his colleagues believe this growth was stimulated by the addition of nutrients brought up to the surface.

Whenever the quantity of plants increases or decreases, it affects the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As phytoplankton grow, they absorb carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. When the tiny plants die, a portion of the organic carbon that they form during photosynthesis sinks to the ocean floor. This results in reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide and is one of several natural processes that contribute to Earth's carbon cycle.

By stimulating these phytoplankton blooms, hurricanes can affect the ecology of the upper ocean. Phytoplankton is at the bottom of the food chain. The factors that influence their growth also directly affect the animals and organisms that feed on them. In addition, since climate-related phenomena like El Niño may change the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, storm-induced biological activity may have even greater contributions to future climate change.

Scientists are still trying to determine how much carbon dioxide might be removed by such a process. "Better knowledge of the carbon cycle will improve our understanding of global ecology and how climate change might affect us," Babin said.

The research appeared as a paper in a recent issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research-Oceans. Study co-authors include J.A. Carton of the University of Maryland and T.D. Dickey of the Ocean Physics Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise funded part of the research. The Enterprise is dedicated to understanding the Earth as an integrated system and applying Earth System Science to improve climate, weather, and natural hazard prediction using the unique vantage point of space.

For information and images about this research visit: http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/2004/0602hurricanebloom.html or http://www.nasa.gov.

This article was posted on: June 16, 2004

Old Dominion University
Office of University Relations

Room 100 Koch Hall Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0018
Telephone: 757-683-3114

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.