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Diatoms are tiny creatures that have huge impacts. They are beautiful microscopic plankton that drift on or near the surface of the sea, multiply quickly when conditions are favorable, and form the foundation of the food chain in the world's oceans. They convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and nutrients into carbohydrates on which nearly all life in the ocean depends. They fuel all of the Earth's living systems, and by their sheer number may cycle as much carbon on Earth as all rainforests combined. The chlorophyll that plankton use for photosynthesis collectively tints the color of surrounding ocean waters, so they can be seen from as far away as space. 

The images on this site of plankton blooms in various oceans around the globe are made available under public license by the European Space Agency (ESA). More technical information is available below the photographs.

Arctic Bloom

Bloom across the Barents Sea

August 19, 2009

A plankton bloom larger than the country of Greece stretches across the Barents Sea off the tip of northern Europe.

Phytoplankton bloom over Iceland and the Denmark Strait
Bloom near Iceland and the Denmark Strait

June 21 2004

The large blue-green areas in the sea off the south and western coasts of Iceland are caused by a very large concentration of phytoplankton. These small organisms form the basis of the ocean's food chain and have an essential role in the global ecosystem; they help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and are a useful indicator of changes in ocean productivity. The image covers 672 by 672 km.

Bloom across Ireland
Bloom across Ireland

June 6, 2006

A large aquamarine-coloured plankton bloom is shown stretching across the length of Ireland in the North Atlantic Ocean.

West Coast of Africa near Mauritania

West Coast of Africa near Mauritania

March 22, 2002

This very first observation of the MERIS instrument captured this huge phytoplankton patch produced by the 'upwelling' mechanism along the west coast of Africa near Mauritania. The unprecedented resolution allows fine-scale structures to be detected. In such upwelling areas, northeast trade winds bring deep and nutrient-rich water to the surface, feeding phytoplankton. Changes in climate affect the intensity of the upwelling with important consequences for marine ecosystems, fisheries and local economies.

Bloom off the coast of Norway
Plankton bloom off the coast of Norway

June 10, 2006

The chlorophyll phytoplankton collectively contain colour the ocean's waters, which provides a means of detecting these tiny organisms from space with dedicated ocean colour sensors such as the MERIS instrument on the Envisat satellite. 

Plankton bloom off the coast of Scotland

Plankton bloom off the coast of Scotland

May 7, 2008

This image captures the green swirls of a phytoplankton bloom in the North Sea off the coast of eastern Scotland. 

Plankton bloom off the coast of Ireland covered in snow

Plankton bloom off the coast of Iceland

October 4, 2008

More than 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers. The Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, is located in the southeast where the white area is more prominent. Reykjavik, the capital, is in the southwest, slightly inland from the boot-shaped peninsula on the bottom left that extends out into the Atlantic Ocean. Brilliant colours of blue-green, caused by large concentrations of phytoplankton, are visible swirling in the waters off the south and western coasts.

Swirls of a plankton bloom off the shores of Namibia
Swirls of a plankton bloom off the shores of Namibia

November 6, 2007

Vibrant quamarine-coloured swirls of a plankton bloom decorate the waters of the South Atlantic Ocean just off the shores of the Republic of Namibia. Plankton play a similar role to terrestrial ‘green’ plants in the photosynthetic process and are credited with removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as their earthbound counterparts, making it important to monitor and model plankton into calculations of future climate change. 

Upwelling near the coast of Mauritania

Upwelling near the coast of Mauritania

March 22, 2002

In most parts of the Earth's ocean, phytoplankton concentration is extremely low. However, in “upwelling areas” such as this one on the west coast of Africa, deep water is pumped up to the surface by strong winds, such as trade winds blowing parallel to the coast. This deep water, rich in nutrients, supplies phytoplankton with the nitrogen, phosphate and silicate they need for their growth, which supports the oceans' entire food chain.

The images on this site of plankton blooms were taken by the Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument onboard the Merisat satellite launched in 2002 and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). The images were taken in Full Resolution mode, providing 300-meter spatial resultion. MERIS was designed to measure the concentration of phytoplankton. The colors seen by MERIS indicate the concentration of chlorophyll, the pigment that phytoplankton use for photosynthesis. MERIS can detect chlorophyll concentrations as low as 0.01 microgram, or 1/100 000 000 of a gram, per litre. 

MERIS data are used to monitor the worldwide distribution of phytoplankton and to estimate primary production. MERIS is providing information on carbon fixation through photosynthesis within the global ocean, for a better understanding of the carbon cycle. Since plankton are a major influence on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and are sensitive to environmental changes, it is important to monitor and model them into calculations of future climate change.

MERIS also provides overviews of the dynamics of upwelling areas where plankton flourish and the most important fishing grounds can be found
. When this upwelling process collapses, as for instance off the Peruvian coast during El Nino events, the ecosystem is dramatically disrupted. Climate change has an impact on the intensity and geographical position of upwelling areas, which, in turn, has important consequences to fishing industries and those who depend on them. MERIS data could thus be used to help improve management of fish stocks within sustainable limits.

More information is available at