Those who live in the mid- to high-latitudes of the planet are familiar with the flush of green that comes with early summer as plants mature in the long, warm days. The ocean, too, comes alive during the spring and summer at those latitudes. During the darkness of winter, when the growth of plant-like marine life slows, nutrients accumulate in the surface waters of the cold northern (or southern) oceans. When light returns in the spring and summer, these plant-like organisms—phytoplankton—proliferate in the surface waters. Spring and early summer phytoplankton blooms can cover a broad swath of the ocean, providing an abundance of food to marine life.
One of the larger regularly observed blooms occurs in the North Atlantic Ocean near Iceland and Greenland in Northern Hemisphere summer. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of a bloom on July 10, 2008. The phytoplankton color the water with swirls in shades ranging from deep green to bright turquoise.
The bloom hugs the western shore of Iceland. The land is largely snow-free except for mountain tops like the snow-covered peak of Snæfellsjökull, the volcano where Jules Verne’s travelers began their descent into the bowels of the Earth in his classic novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Those who traveled to the volcano’s summit at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland during July would have a good view of the pretty, reflective phytoplankton blooms in the Atlantic all around them.
Another volcanic peak that might offer a fine view of the bloom is the island of Surtsey. The tiny island, barely a speck in the image, formed during volcanic eruptions during the 1960s. The only people permitted on the island however, are researchers studying how land develops from volcanic material and how life colonizes the new land. Because the island has been protected since it formed, it is a pristine natural laboratory. Plants born from seeds carried on ocean currents, molds, bacteria, fungi, 89 species of birds, and 335 species of invertebrates inhabited the island by 2004. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization made Surtsey a World Heritage site on July 8, 2008.
NASA image courtesy Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team. Caption by Norman Kuring and Holli Riebeek.