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Coccolithophores in the Gulf of Maine
This page contains archived content and is no longer being updated. At the time of publication, it represented the best available science. However, more recent observations and studies may have rendered some content obsolete.
Earlier this summer, trillions of calcite (limestone) coated phytoplankton,
known as coccolithophores, appeared in the waters off the coast of Maine. This
true color image of the coccolithophore bloom was acquired on July 11, 2002, by
the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s
Terra spacecraft. The bloom is the large bluish-green patch in the center of the
image in the Gulf of Maine.
Unlike any other plant in the ocean, coccolithophores surround themselves
with microscopic plating made of calcite. These scales, known as coccoliths, are
shaped like hubcaps and are only three one-thousandths of a millimeter in
diameter. What coccoliths lack in size, they make up in volume. At any one time
a single coccolithophore is attached to or surrounded by at least 30 scales.
Additional coccoliths are dumped into the water when the coccolithophores
multiply asexually, die or simply make too many scales. In areas with trillions
of coccolithophores, the waters will turn an opaque turquoise from the dense
cloud of coccoliths. (Click to read more about coccolithophores.)
Though there are always coccoliths in the Gulf of Maine, the area hasn’t seen
a bloom like this one since 1989. Currently, NASA researchers are studying the
bloom aboard a ferry in the gulf in an attempt to measure the bloom’s density
and depth. So far the bloom appears to be about 20 to 25 meters thick and
contains nearly half a million tons of calcite.