Tropical cyclones and plankton in ‘cat and mouse’ game

30 Nov 2010 0 Share

Oceanographers prepare for a hard day's work sampling the, er.. plankton levels at Kirra.

Oceanographers prepare for a hard day's work sampling the, er.. plankton levels at Kirra.

The earth’s most catastrophic storms have shown a sensitive response to the tiniest of marine critters, according to recent research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Phytoplankton are minute and generally mild-mannered free-floating plants found throughout the ocean. But throw in some severe weather and they can lead a hurricane over the ocean in a deadly game of ‘follow the leader’.

Plankton bloom in the nutrient-rich upwelling in the wake of cyclones. NASA satellites pick up changes in the colour of the ocean surface, caused by an army of chlorophyll-rich phytoplankton. These satellite observations and related studies have shown a direct correlation between the physical makeup of a tropical cyclone - its size, strength and speed - and the size of the associated plankton bloom. Bigger storms stimulate bigger plankton blooms.

So how does it all work?
Planktonic power-blooms change the water colour to a ‘murkquoise’ (murky turquoise) colour and hinder sunlight penetration. This warms the surface water, while leaving the depths cooler. These changes in heat distribution of the water surface affects the rate at which storms are created and intensify.

The blooms steer the path of a storm by recreating prime cyclone-forming conditions. As the air parcel above the plankton bloom is warmed by the water it rises, creating an area of low-pressure which attracts the tropical cyclone towards the bloom.

Findings indicate that even a slight change in ocean-surface colour may have a dramatic effect. One modeled scenario predicted the number of tropical cyclone barreling towards Hawaii could increase by 25 percent.

What does that mean for us?
With a big La Nina season on the cards, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicts more tropical cyclones – the Southern Hemisphere version of hurricanes - than usual this summer. Satellite images show plankton blooms off the coasts of Tasmania and New Zealand similar to those observed in the Northern Hemisphere studies.

So should we be worried about miscreant micro-organisms wreaking havoc on our coastline?

Probably not, but the relationship between tropical cyclones, ocean colour and plankton blooms highlights the intricacy of Earth’s ecosystems. Scientists are continuing their investigation into phytoplankton’s role in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

Discoveries like this emphasise the need for further understanding of the complex systems that produce phenomena such as tropical cyclones, and highlight our vulnerability despite human development.

For in depth analysis of the plankton-tropical cyclone correlation see NASA or Discovery’s website.

To see some amazing images from space of tropical cyclone induced plankton blooms see Wired Science or an image off Tasmania’s coast on Discovery News' site.

- Bridget Reedman

Tags: cyclone , ocean , interest (create Alert from these tags)

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