Satellites spot oceans illuminated by billions of organisms

The ocean has always shone. The Greeks and Romans knew about luminous sea creatures as well as the more general phenomenon of seawater ...


The ocean has always shone.

The Greeks and Romans knew about luminous sea creatures as well as the more general phenomenon of seawater which can light up in blue-green colors.

Charles Darwin, while sailing near South America on a pitch black night aboard HMS Beagle, encountered luminescent waves. He called him “a marvelous and most beautiful spectacle.” As far as the eye could see, he added, “the crest of every wave was brilliant” – so much so that the “livid flames” lit up the sky.

Now, scientists report that oceanic bioluminescence can be so intense and massive that satellites orbiting five hundred miles high can see glowing carpets of microorganisms as they materialize in the seas. Eight investigators last month in Scientific Reports said they found a bright spot in South Java in 2019 that has grown larger than the combined areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. .

“It was a revelation,” said Steven D. Miller, lead author of the bioluminescence study and specialist in satellite observations at Colorado State University. When a hidden wonder of nature appears, he added, “it captures your imagination.”

Scientists said that careful examination of images collected between December 2012 and March 2021 from a pair of satellites allowed them to identify a dozen extremely important events – about one every eight months. Even the smallest was a hundred times the size of Manhattan.

The imagery opens a new window to the world’s oceans, say scientists, and promises to help track and study glowing seas, whose origins are poorly understood.

Kenneth H. Nealson, a pioneer in bioluminescence research at the University of Southern California, called the discovery a “big step towards the ability to understand” how a lasting mystery of the sea “actually comes to birth.”

The new article noted that large concentrations of living lights have long “escaped rigorous scientific investigation, and therefore little is known about their composition, mechanism of formation, and role in the marine ecosystem.”

Marine bioluminescence is often associated with gruesome creatures from the ink depths. An iconic illuminator is the monkfish, which hangs shiny decoys in front of needle-shaped teeth. In contrast, luminous seas seem to be born when several billion tiny bacteria light up in unison.

Dr Nealson, who was not involved in the satellite research, and his colleagues reported in 1970 that dilute suspensions of a particular type of bacteria do not emit any glow. If allowed to multiply, however, germs can suddenly turn on as if a switch were flipped. Scientists now theorize that the scintillating masses of bacteria attract fish, whose insides provide nourishing habitats.

Dr. Miller’s trail of discovery began nearly two decades ago when a lunchtime conversation raised the question of whether marine bioluminescence could be visible from space. While working at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, in 2004, he began examining images from a weather satellite. Soon he spotted in the northwest Indian Ocean what turned out to be a glowing spot that was almost the size of Connecticut.

The blurry area was barely visible, but Dr Miller and his colleagues became very excited because they knew that a new generation of satellite sensors would soon offer much higher sensitivity and sharpness. The improved sensors debuted on a pair of satellites launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2011 and 2017.

The sensitive detectors proved to be adept – at least on dark nights – at capturing the gleams of the sea and provided the images for the current report.

One surprise, Dr Miller said, is that the events persist for long periods of time. For example, the big patch off Java in 2019 lasted for at least 45 nights. This raises the possibility that a rapid response team of oceanographers will have enough time to reach plots and collect samples for detailed studies.

To date, said Dr Miller, no team has succeeded. He added that television companies that make nature documentaries have shown interest in using satellite detections to track down and film the sparkling seas.

Peter Herring, a British marine biologist known for his work on deep bioluminescence, called the satellite’s work important because, after centuries of uncertainty, it raised the prospect of finally providing hard evidence of what powers the light coils.

The find, he added, “is a big splash and will have significant ripples.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Satellites spot oceans illuminated by billions of organisms
Satellites spot oceans illuminated by billions of organisms
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