ocean color may affect hurricane activity

a recently study suggests that the color of the ocean, determined largely by the concentration of phytoplankton at the surface, may affect the development of tropical cyclones. “greener” sea surfaces with higher concentrations of photosynthetic plankton absorb more sunlight, causing light to scatter at the surface. in parts of the ocean that are devoid of phytoplankton, sunlight penetrates deeper and sea surface temperatures (SSTs) tend to be lower.

phytoplankton are a diverse group of photosynthetic microorganisms that form the basis of marine food chains

what do SST differences mean for tropical storm formation? higher SSTs lead to the formation of more energetic storms, providing both thermal energy and moisture required for storm formation. a new study suggests that if the north pacific subtropical gyre (an ocean circulation cell that comprises most of the north pacific) were entirely devoid of “light scattering particles” such as phytoplankton, the number of  cyclones forming in this region may be reduced by up to 2/3.


5 thoughts on “ocean color may affect hurricane activity”

    1. That’s a great question- I’m sure it does but I really don’t know that anyone is looking into it. I know a couple people who study trash buildup in the central Atlantic ocean who I can ask, though their research primarily focuses on determining how much trash is out there, how it is distributed, and whether it is eventually dissipated. It’s a really sad topic that I encourage everyone to read about.

  1. Nice topic!
    I remember being on a conference in Budapest in 1998, where a scientist (Marlon Lewis) – he is a specialist in phytoplankton optics and a great biological oceanographer – showed that a bit more phytoplankton in the upper regions, at the right places, can dramatically influence storms and even El Nina events.
    This is not because algal cells scatter light, but because they absorb light – and subsequently, convert only a fraction of the absorbed light into fixing carbon dioxide and making oxygen. The rest of the energy is ultimately being dissipated as heat again. All this takes place on short time scales, as you can feel when you put two bottles with water, one with ink, one without, in front of a window: the colored bottle will heat up very fast.
    But even on a slower time scale, days to weeks, part of the absorbed solar energy is released again as part of the phytoplankton is being eaten (rather than continuing to divide into daughter cells)…and the guys metabolizing the algal dinner will give off heat (even bacteria do that!).

    1. Thanks for the information, Bernd. I’ll have to look up Dr. Lewis, I haven’t heard of his research but it sounds fascinating. I do research on microbial metabolism in soils and am very interested in how microbes regulate nutrient fluxes as well as CO2 release from soils, but I haven’t thought much about the heat transfers that occur during trophic energy transfers. I’d imagine they could be quite significant!

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