The current crisis regarding oxygen cylinder unavailability is not unknown to anyone. However, as nature prepares us for the tough times, it also provides ways and ingredients in our venture to get out of the crisis. All we need to do is be aware and keep our eyes and ears open all the time.
Let’s venture into a story about such an interesting species that provide 50% of oxygen to the earth.
Phytoplankton needs two things for photosynthesis and thus their survival: energy from the sun and nutrients from the water. Phytoplankton absorbs both across their cell walls.
In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen into the water. Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis. The other half is produced via photosynthesis on land by trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants.
Plankton is a diverse group of tiny organisms, not just one species of sea creature. Plankton includes algae, bacteria, crustaceans, molluscs, and many other organisms. What distinguishes them from other organisms is the way they move. Their small size prevents them from swimming against ocean currents, so they drift.
Although planktons are small, these microscopic drifters play a critical role in aquatic ecosystems. Many animals, including whales, feed on them. Plant-like plankton, known as phytoplankton, grow and obtain their energy via photosynthesis and produce an estimated 50% of the world’s oxygen. As a result, climate scientists are eager to learn more about phytoplankton because of their contribution to both oxygen production and carbon sequestration.
Bosse et al. recently demonstrated how powerful winter storms create oceanic structures that affect the distribution of nutrients to phytoplankton communities as well as the organisms’ ability to produce and store carbon. Submesoscale Coherent Vortices, or SCV, are isolated, long-lasting types of eddies (swirling seawater) that typically flow in the opposite direction of the Earth’s rotation.
In June 2013, the researchers looked at an SCV in the Ligurian Sea, a Mediterranean basin that includes both Italy and France, that had formed several months earlier as a result of a major winter mixing event caused by severe storms. They used an autonomous glider, or drone, outfitted with sensors to detect oxygen and fluorescence, a stealthy property of many underwater creatures that allows them to absorb light at one wavelength, or colour, and reemit it at another to avoid detection.
They then supplemented the glider’s measurements with data from a CTD, a ship-lowered instrument named after the properties its sensors detect: conductivity, temperature, and depth. They also collected water samples from both inside and outside the SCV to assess nutrient and phytoplankton pigment levels.
The team discovered that the core of the SCV (which traps and transports nutrients, plankton, and other living things) extended vertically from half a kilometre to more than a kilometre below the sea surface. The core, which is composed of highly uniform, oxygenated water, would have formed during the winter preceding its summertime observation. They discovered that the SCV’s overall radius was nearly 6 and a half kilometres wide.
A kilometre-wide, swirling body of seawater may appear intimidating, but the SCV’s radius was unusually small, given its relatively high Rossby number (the measurement of a fluid’s flow intensity). According to the researchers, rotation creates dynamic barriers that control the transport and mixing of water properties within eddies. These barriers made it difficult for water to spread from the SCV’s core to the surrounding ocean.
Although the core of the SCV was depleted of nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, and silicate (13–18% lower than the nutrient-rich surrounding waters), there was more than enough to keep phytoplankton well fed, particularly near the sea surface.
The measurements show that phytoplankton, including the tiniest nanoplankton, were not only abundant but also producing more carbon than ever before inside the SCV.
The researchers were able to demonstrate how these meteorological phenomena provide habitat for phytoplankton by delving into the dynamics of this SCV. Such data assists scientists in better understanding the tiny creatures that play a critical role in the Earth’s changing climate.
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