Phytoplankton /ˌfaɪtoʊˈplæŋktən/ are the autotrophic (self-feeding) components of the plankton community and a key part of oceans, seas and freshwater basin ecosystems. The name comes from the Greek words φυτόν (phyton), meaning "plant", and πλαγκτός (planktos), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter".[1] Most phytoplankton are too small to be individually seen with the unaided eye. However, when present in high enough numbers, some varieties may be noticeable as colored patches on the water surface due to the presence of chlorophyll within their cells and accessory pigments (such as phycobiliproteins or xanthophylls) in some species.

Diatoms through the microscope
Diatoms are one of the most common types of phytoplankton.


Phytoplankton come in many shapes and sizes.
Phytoplankton - the foundation of the oceanic food chain
Phytoplankton are the foundation of the oceanic food chain.
Spring Bloom Colors the Pacific Near Hokkaido
When two currents collide (here the Oyashio and Kuroshio currents) they create eddies. Phytoplankton concentrates along the boundaries of the eddies, tracing the motion of the water.
Cwall99 lg
Algal bloom off south England.


Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing microscopic biotic organisms that inhabit the upper sunlit layer of almost all oceans and bodies of fresh water on Earth. They are agents for "primary production", the creation of organic compounds from carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, a process that sustains the aquatic food web.[2]

Phytoplankton obtain energy through the process of photosynthesis and must therefore live in the well-lit surface layer (termed the euphotic zone) of an ocean, sea, lake, or other body of water. Phytoplankton account for about half of all photosynthetic activity on Earth.[3][4][5] Their cumulative energy fixation in carbon compounds (primary production) is the basis for the vast majority of oceanic and also many freshwater food webs (chemosynthesis is a notable exception).

While almost all phytoplankton species are obligate photoautotrophs, there are some that are mixotrophic and other, non-pigmented species that are actually heterotrophic (the latter are often viewed as zooplankton). Of these, the best known are dinoflagellate genera such as Noctiluca and Dinophysis, that obtain organic carbon by ingesting other organisms or detrital material.

Oxygen production

Phytoplankton absorb energy from the Sun and nutrients from the water to produce their own food. In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release molecular oxygen (O
) into the water. It is estimated that between 50% and 85% of the world's oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis.[6][7][8][9][10] The rest is produced via photosynthesis on land by plants.[8] Furthermore, phytoplankton photosynthesis has controlled the atmospheric CO
balance since the early Precambrian Eon.[11] (See Biological pump.)


Phytoplankton are crucially dependent on minerals. These are primarily macronutrients such as nitrate, phosphate or silicic acid, whose availability is governed by the balance between the so-called biological pump and upwelling of deep, nutrient-rich waters. Phytoplankton nutrient composition drives and is driven by the Redfield ratio of macronutrients generally available throughout the surface oceans. However, across large regions of the World Ocean such as the Southern Ocean, phytoplankton are also limited by the lack of the micronutrient iron. This has led to some scientists advocating iron fertilization as a means to counteract the accumulation of human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.[12] Large-scale experiments have added iron (usually as salts such as iron sulphate) to the oceans to promote phytoplankton growth and draw atmospheric CO2 into the ocean. However, controversy about manipulating the ecosystem and the efficiency of iron fertilization has slowed such experiments.[13]

Vitamin B

Phytoplankton depend on Vitamin B for survival. Areas in the ocean have been identified as having a major lack of Vitamin B, and correspondingly, phytoplankton.[14]


The effects of anthropogenic warming on the global population of phytoplankton is an area of active research. Changes in the vertical stratification of the water column, the rate of temperature-dependent biological reactions, and the atmospheric supply of nutrients are expected to have important effects on future phytoplankton productivity.[15][16]


The effects of anthropogenic ocean acidification on phytoplankton growth and community structure has also received considerable attention. Phytoplankton such as coccolithophores contain calcium carbonate cell walls that are sensitive to ocean acidification. Because of their short generation times, evidence suggests some phytoplankton can adapt to changes in pH induced by increased carbon dioxide on rapid time-scales (months to years)[17][18].

Food web

Phytoplankton serve as the base of the aquatic food web, providing an essential ecological function for all aquatic life. Under future conditions of anthropogenic warming and ocean acidification, changes in phytoplankton mortality may be significant. One remarkable Of the many food chains in the ocean – remarkable due to the small number of links – is that of phytoplankton sustaining krill (a crustacean similar to a tiny shrimp), which in turn sustain baleen whales.

Structural and functional diversity

The term phytoplankton encompasses all photoautotrophic microorganisms in aquatic food webs. However, unlike terrestrial communities, where most autotrophs are plants, phytoplankton are a diverse group, incorporating protistan eukaryotes and both eubacterial and archaebacterial prokaryotes. There are about 5,000 known species of marine phytoplankton.[19] How such diversity evolved despite scarce resources (restricting niche differentiation) is unclear.[20]

In terms of numbers, the most important groups of phytoplankton include the diatoms, cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates, although many other groups of algae are represented. One group, the coccolithophorids, is responsible (in part) for the release of significant amounts of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) into the atmosphere. DMS is oxidized to form sulfate which, in areas where ambient aerosol particle concentrations are low, can contribute to the population of cloud condensation nuclei, mostly leading to increased cloud cover and cloud albedo according to the so-called CLAW Hypothesis.[21][22] Different types of phytoplankton support different trophic levels within varying ecosystems. In oligotrophic oceanic regions such as the Sargasso Sea or the South Pacific Gyre, phytoplankton is dominated by the small sized cells, called picoplankton and nanoplankton (also referred to as picoflagellates and nanoflagellates), mostly composed of cyanobacteria (Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus) and picoeucaryotes such as Micromonas. Within more productive ecosystems, dominated by upwelling or high terrestrial inputs, larger dinoflagellates are the more dominant phytoplankton and reflect a larger portion of the biomass.[23]

Growth strategy

In the early twentieth century, Alfred C. Redfield found the similarity of the phytoplankton’s elemental composition to the major dissolved nutrients in the deep ocean.[24] Redfield proposed that the ratio of carbon to nitrogen to phosphorus (106:16:1) in the ocean was controlled by the phytoplankton’s requirements, as phytoplankton subsequently release nitrogen and phosphorus as they are remineralized. This so-called “Redfield ratio” in describing stoichiometry of phytoplankton and seawater has become a fundamental principle to understand marine ecology, biogeochemistry and phytoplankton evolution.[25] However, the Redfield ratio is not a universal value and it may diverge due to the changes in exogenous nutrient delivery[26] and microbial metabolisms in the ocean, such as nitrogen fixation, denitrification and anammox.

The dynamic stoichiometry shown in unicellular algae reflects their capability to store nutrients in an internal pool, shift between enzymes with various nutrient requirements and alter osmolyte composition.[27][28] Different cellular components have their own unique stoichiometry characteristics,[25] for instance, resource (light or nutrients) acquisition machinery such as proteins and chlorophyll contain a high concentration of nitrogen but low in phosphorus. Meanwhile, growth machinery such as ribosomal RNA contains high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations.

Based on allocation of resources, phytoplankton is classified into three different growth strategies, namely survivalist, bloomer[29] and generalist. Survivalist phytoplankton has a high ratio of N:P (>30) and contains an abundance of resource-acquisition machinery to sustain growth under scarce resources. Bloomer phytoplankton has a low N:P ratio (<10), contains a high proportion of growth machinery, and is adapted to exponential growth. Generalist phytoplankton has similar N:P to the Redfield ratio and contain relatively equal resource-acquisition and growth machinery.

Environmental controversy

A 2010 study published in Nature reported that marine phytoplankton had declined substantially in the world's oceans over the past century. Phytoplankton concentrations in surface waters were estimated to have decreased by about 40% since 1950, at a rate of around 1% per year, possibly in response to ocean warming.[30][31] The study generated debate among scientists and led to several communications and criticisms, also published in Nature.[32][33][33][34] In a 2014 follow-up study, the authors used a larger database of measurements and revised their analysis methods to account for several of the published criticisms, but ultimately reached similar conclusions to the original Nature study.[35] These studies and the need to understand the phytoplankon in the ocean led to the creation of the Secchi Disk Citizen Science study in 2013.[36] The Secchi Disk study is a global study of phytoplankton conducted by seafarers (sailors, anglers, divers) involving a Secchi Disk and a smartphone app.

Estimates of oceanic phytoplankton change are highly variable. One global ocean primary productivity study found a net increase in phytoplankton, as judged from measured chlorophyll, when comparing observations in 1998–2002 to those conducted during a prior mission in 1979–1986.[37] Chlorophyll are photosynthetic pigments that are often used as an indicator of phytoplankton biomass. However, using the same database of measurements, other studies concluded that both chlorophyll and primary production had declined over this same time interval.[38][39] The airborne fraction of CO2 from human emissions, the percentage neither sequestered by photosynthetic life on land and sea nor absorbed in the oceans abiotically, has been almost constant over the past century, and that suggests a moderate upper limit on how much a component of the carbon cycle as large as phytoplankton have declined.[40] In the northeast Atlantic, where a relatively long chlorophyll data series is available, and the site of the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey, a net increase was found from 1948 to 2002.[41] During 1998–2005, global ocean net primary productivity rose in 1998, followed by a decline during the rest of that period, yielding a small net increase.[42] Using six climate model simulations, a large multi-university study of ocean ecosystems predicted "a global increase in primary production of 0.7% at the low end to 8.1% at the high end," by 2050 although with "very large regional differences" including "a contraction of the highly productive marginal sea ice biome by 42% in the Northern Hemisphere and 17% in the Southern Hemisphere."[43] A more recent multi-model study estimated that primary production would decline by 2-20% by 2100 A.D.[16] Despite substantial variation in both the magnitude and spatial pattern of change, the majority of published studies predict that phytoplankton biomass and/or primary production will decline over the next century.[15][44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51]

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have found phytoplankton to be a major source of methanol (CH
) in the ocean in quantities that could rival or exceed that which is produced on land.[52][53]


Phytoplankton are a key food item in both aquaculture and mariculture. Both utilize phytoplankton as food for the animals being farmed. In mariculture, the phytoplankton is naturally occurring and is introduced into enclosures with the normal circulation of seawater. In aquaculture, phytoplankton must be obtained and introduced directly. The plankton can either be collected from a body of water or cultured, though the former method is seldom used. Phytoplankton is used as a foodstock for the production of rotifers,[54] which are in turn used to feed other organisms. Phytoplankton is also used to feed many varieties of aquacultured molluscs, including pearl oysters and giant clams. A 2018 study estimated the nutritional value of natural phytoplankton in terms of carbohydrate, protein and lipid across the world ocean using ocean-colour data from satellites,[55] and found the calorific value of phytoplankton to vary considerably across different oceanic regions and between different time of the year.[55][56]

The production of phytoplankton under artificial conditions is itself a form of aquaculture. Phytoplankton is cultured for a variety of purposes, including foodstock for other aquacultured organisms,[54] a nutritional supplement for captive invertebrates in aquaria. Culture sizes range from small-scale laboratory cultures of less than 1L to several tens of thousands of liters for commercial aquaculture.[54] Regardless of the size of the culture, certain conditions must be provided for efficient growth of plankton. The majority of cultured plankton is marine, and seawater of a specific gravity of 1.010 to 1.026 may be used as a culture medium. This water must be sterilized, usually by either high temperatures in an autoclave or by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, to prevent biological contamination of the culture. Various fertilizers are added to the culture medium to facilitate the growth of plankton. A culture must be aerated or agitated in some way to keep plankton suspended, as well as to provide dissolved carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. In addition to constant aeration, most cultures are manually mixed or stirred on a regular basis. Light must be provided for the growth of phytoplankton. The colour temperature of illumination should be approximately 6,500 K, but values from 4,000 K to upwards of 20,000 K have been used successfully. The duration of light exposure should be approximately 16 hours daily; this is the most efficient artificial day length.[54]

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Further reading

External links

Algal bloom

An algal bloom or algae bloom is a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae in freshwater or marine water systems, and is recognized by the discoloration in the water from their pigments. Cyanobacteria were mistaken for algae in the past, so cyanobacterial blooms are sometimes also called algal blooms. Blooms which can injure animals or the ecology are called "harmful algal blooms" (HAB), and can lead to fish die-offs, cities cutting off water to residents, or states having to close fisheries. Also, a bloom can block out the sunlight from other organisms, and deplete oxygen levels in the water. Also, some algae secrete poisons into the water.

Antarctic Circumpolar Current

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is an ocean current that flows clockwise from west to east around Antarctica. An alternative name for the ACC is the West Wind Drift. The ACC is the dominant circulation feature of the Southern Ocean and has a mean transport estimated at 100-150 Sverdrups (Sv, million m³/s), or possibly even higher, making it the largest ocean current. The current is circumpolar due to the lack of any landmass connecting with Antarctica and this keeps warm ocean waters away from Antarctica, enabling that continent to maintain its huge ice sheet.

Associated with the Circumpolar Current is the Antarctic Convergence, where the cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the subantarctic, creating a zone of upwelling nutrients. These nurture high levels of phytoplankton with associated copepods and krill, and resultant foodchains supporting fish, whales, seals, penguins, albatrosses, and a wealth of other species.

The ACC has been known to sailors for centuries; it greatly speeds up any travel from west to east, but makes sailing extremely difficult from east to west; although this is mostly due to the prevailing westerly winds. The circumstances preceding the mutiny on the Bounty and Jack London's story "Make Westing" poignantly illustrated the difficulty it caused for mariners seeking to round Cape Horn on the clipper ship route between New York and California. The clipper route, which is the fastest sailing route around the world, follows the ACC around three continental capes – Cape Agulhas (Africa), South East Cape (Australia), and Cape Horn (South America).

The current creates the Ross and Weddell gyres.

Cloud condensation nuclei

Cloud condensation nuclei or CCNs (also known as cloud seeds) are small particles typically 0.2 µm, or 1/100th the size of a cloud droplet on which water vapor condenses. Water requires a non-gaseous surface to make the transition from a vapour to a liquid; this process is called condensation. In the atmosphere, this surface presents itself as tiny solid or liquid particles called CCNs. When no CCNs are present, water vapour can be supercooled at about −13°C (8°F) for 5–6 hours before droplets spontaneously form (this is the basis of the cloud chamber for detecting subatomic particles). In above freezing temperatures the air would have to be supersaturated to around 400% before the droplets could form.The concept of cloud condensation nuclei is used in cloud seeding, that tries to encourage rainfall by seeding the air with condensation nuclei. It has further been suggested that creating such nuclei could be used for marine cloud brightening, a climate engineering technique.

Ecology of the San Francisco Estuary

The San Francisco Estuary together with the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta represents a highly altered ecosystem. The region has been heavily re-engineered to accommodate the needs of water delivery, shipping, agriculture, and most recently, suburban development. These needs have wrought direct changes in the movement of water and the nature of the landscape, and indirect changes from the introduction of non-native species. New species have altered the architecture of the food web as surely as levees have altered the landscape of islands and channels that form the complex system known as the Delta.This article deals particularly with the ecology of the low salinity zone (LSZ) of the estuary. Reconstructing a historic food web for the LSZ is difficult for a number of reasons. First, there is no clear record of the species that historically have occupied the estuary. Second, the San Francisco Estuary and Delta have been in geologic and hydrologic transition for most of their 10,000 year history, and so describing the "natural" condition of the estuary is much like "hitting a moving target". Climate change, hydrologic engineering, shifting water needs, and newly introduced species will continue to alter the food web configuration of the estuary. This model provides a snapshot of the current state, with notes about recent changes or species introductions that have altered the configuration of the food web. Understanding the dynamics of the current food web may prove useful for restoration efforts to improve the functioning and species diversity of the estuary.

High-nutrient, low-chlorophyll regions

High-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC) regions are regions of the ocean where the abundance of phytoplankton is low and fairly constant despite the availability of macronutrients. Phytoplankton rely on a suite of nutrients for cellular function. Macronutrients (e.g., nitrate, phosphate, silicic acid) are generally available in higher quantities in surface ocean waters, and are the typical components of common garden fertilizers. Micronutrients (e.g., iron, zinc, cobalt) are generally available in lower quantities and include trace metals. Macronutrients are typically available in millimolar concentrations, while micronutrients are generally available in micro- to nanomolar concentrations. In general, nitrogen tends to be a limiting ocean nutrient, but in HNLC regions it is never significantly depleted. Instead, these regions tend to be limited by low concentrations of metabolizable iron. Iron is a critical phytoplankton micronutrient necessary for enzyme catalysis and electron transport.Between the 1930s and '80s, it was hypothesized that iron is a limiting ocean micronutrient, but there were not sufficient methods to reliably detect iron in seawater to confirm this hypothesis. In 1989, high concentrations of iron-rich sediments in nearshore coastal waters off the Gulf of Alaska were detected. However, offshore waters had lower iron concentrations and lower productivity despite macronutrient availability for phytoplankton growth. This pattern was observed in other oceanic regions and led to the naming of three major HNLC zones: the North Pacific Ocean, the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, and the Southern Ocean.The discovery of HNLC regions has fostered scientific debate about the ethics and efficacy of iron fertilization experiments which attempt to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide by stimulating surface-level photosynthesis. It has also led to the development of hypotheses such as grazing control which poses that HNLC regions are formed, in part, from the grazing of phytoplankton (e.g. dinoflagellates, ciliates) by smaller organisms (e.g. protists).


Holoplankton are organisms that are planktic (they live in the water column and cannot swim against a current) for their entire life cycle. Examples of holoplankton include some diatoms, radiolarians, some dinoflagellates, foraminifera, amphipods, krill, copepods, and salps, as well as some gastropod mollusk species. Holoplankton dwell in the pelagic zone as opposed to the benthic zone. Holoplankton include both phytoplankton and zooplankton and vary in size. The most common plankton are protists.

Hypoxia (environmental)

Hypoxia refers to low oxygen conditions. Normally, 20.9% of the gas in the atmosphere is oxygen. The partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere is 20.9% of the total barometric pressure. In water however, oxygen levels are much lower, approximately 1%, and fluctuate locally depending on the presence of photosynthetic organisms and relative distance to the surface (if there is more oxygen in the air, it will diffuse across the partial pressure gradient).

Iron fertilization

Iron fertilization is the intentional introduction of iron to iron-poor areas of the ocean surface to stimulate phytoplankton production. This is intended to enhance biological productivity and/or accelerate carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration from the atmosphere.

Iron is a trace element necessary for photosynthesis in plants. It is highly insoluble in sea water and in a variety of locations is the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton growth. Large algal blooms can be created by supplying iron to iron-deficient ocean waters. These blooms can nourish other organisms.

Multiple ocean labs, scientists and businesses have explored fertilization. Beginning in 1993, thirteen research teams completed ocean trials demonstrating that phytoplankton blooms can be stimulated by iron augmentation. Controversy remains over the effectiveness of atmospheric CO2 sequestration and ecological effects. The most recent open ocean trials of ocean iron fertilization were in 2009 (January to March) in the South Atlantic by project Lohafex, and in July 2012 in the North Pacific off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC).Fertilization occurs naturally when upwellings bring nutrient-rich water to the surface, as occurs when ocean currents meet an ocean bank or a sea mount. This form of fertilization produces the world's largest marine habitats. Fertilization can also occur when weather carries wind blown dust long distances over the ocean, or iron-rich minerals are carried into the ocean by glaciers, rivers and icebergs.

Lake ecosystem

A lake ecosystem includes biotic (living) plants, animals and micro-organisms, as well as abiotic (nonliving) physical and chemical interactions.Lake ecosystems are a prime example of lentic ecosystems. Lentic refers to stationary or relatively still water, from the Latin lentus, which means sluggish. Lentic waters range from ponds to lakes to wetlands, and much of this article applies to lentic ecosystems in general. Lentic ecosystems can be compared with lotic ecosystems, which involve flowing terrestrial waters such as rivers and streams. Together, these two fields form the more general study area of freshwater or aquatic ecology.

Lentic systems are diverse, ranging from a small, temporary rainwater pool a few inches deep to Lake Baikal, which has a maximum depth of 1642 m. The general distinction between pools/ponds and lakes is vague, but Brown states that ponds and pools have their entire bottom surfaces exposed to light, while lakes do not. In addition, some lakes become seasonally stratified (discussed in more detail below.) Ponds and pools have two regions: the pelagic open water zone, and the benthic zone, which comprises the bottom and shore regions. Since lakes have deep bottom regions not exposed to light, these systems have an additional zone, the profundal. These three areas can have very different abiotic conditions and, hence, host species that are specifically adapted to live there.

Marine snow

In the deep ocean, marine snow is a continuous shower of mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the water column. It is a significant means of exporting energy from the light-rich photic zone to the aphotic zone below. The term was first coined by the explorer William Beebe as he observed it from his bathysphere. As the origin of marine snow lies in activities within the productive photic zone, the prevalence of marine snow changes with seasonal fluctuations in photosynthetic activity and ocean currents. Marine snow can be an important food source for organisms living in the aphotic zone, particularly for organisms which live very deep in the water column.

Microbial food web

The microbial food web refers to the combined trophic interactions among microbes in aquatic environments. These microbes include viruses, bacteria, algae, heterotrophic protists (such as ciliates and flagellates).

In aquatic environments, microbes constitute the base of the food web. Single celled photosynthetic organisms such as diatoms and cyanobacteria are generally the most important primary producers in the open ocean. Many of these cells, especially cyanobacteria, are too small to be captured and consumed by small crustaceans and planktonic larvae. Instead, these cells are consumed by phagotrophic protists which are readily consumed by larger organisms. Viruses can infect and break open bacterial cells and (to a lesser extent), planktonic algae (a.k.a. phytoplankton). Therefore, viruses in the microbial food web act to reduce the population of bacteria and, by lysing bacterial cells, release particulate and dissolved organic carbon (DOC). DOC may also be released into the environment by algal cells. One of the reasons phytoplankton release DOC termed "unbalanced growth" is when essential nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus) are limiting. Therefore, carbon produced during photosynthesis is not used for the synthesis of proteins (and subsequent cell growth), but is limited due of a lack of the nutrients necessary for macromolecules. Excess photosynthate, or DOC is then released, or exuded.

The microbial loop describes a pathway in the microbial food web where DOC is returned to higher trophic levels via the incorporation into bacterial biomass.


Nanophytoplankton are particularly small phytoplankton with sizes between 2 and 20 µm. They are the autotrophic part of nanoplankton. Like other phytoplankton, nanophytoplankton are microscopic organisms that obtain energy through the process of photosynthesis and must therefore live in the upper sunlit layer of ocean or other bodies of water. These microscopic free-floating organisms, including algae, and cyanobacteria, fix large amounts of carbon which would otherwise be released as carbon dioxide.. The term nanophytoplankton is derived from the far more widely used term nannoplankton/nanoplankton.

Ocean fertilization

Ocean fertilization or ocean nourishment is a type of climate engineering based on the purposeful introduction of nutrients to the upper ocean to increase marine food production and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A number of techniques, including fertilization by iron, urea and phosphorus have been proposed.


A planktivore is an aquatic organism that feeds on planktonic food, including zooplankton and phytoplankton.


Plankton are the diverse collection of organisms that live in large bodies of water and are unable to swim against a current. The individual organisms constituting plankton are called plankters. They provide a crucial source of food to many large aquatic organisms, such as fish and whales.

These organisms include bacteria, archaea, algae, protozoa and drifting or floating animals that inhabit—for example—the pelagic zone of oceans, seas, or bodies of fresh water. Essentially, plankton are defined by their ecological niche rather than any phylogenetic or taxonomic classification.

Though many planktonic species are microscopic in size, plankton includes organisms over a wide range of sizes, including large organisms such as jellyfish.

Technically the term does not include organisms on the surface of the water, which are called pleuston—or those that swim actively in the water, which are called nekton.

Spring bloom

The spring bloom is a strong increase in phytoplankton abundance (i.e. stock) that typically occurs in the early spring and lasts until late spring or early summer. This seasonal event is characteristic of temperate North Atlantic, sub-polar, and coastal waters. Phytoplankton blooms occur when growth exceeds losses, however there is no universally accepted definition of the magnitude of change or the threshold of abundance that constitutes a bloom. The magnitude, spatial extent and duration of a bloom depends on a variety of abiotic and biotic factors. Abiotic factors include light availability, nutrients, temperature, and physical processes that influence light availability, and biotic factors include grazing, viral lysis, and phytoplankton physiology. The factors that lead to bloom initiation are still actively debated (see Critical Depth).

Thin layers (oceanography)

Thin layers are congregations of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the water column which were discovered with advances in instrumentation and deployment technologies allowed samples at the temporal and spatial scales where patterns were revealed. Although they may extend for kilometers, thin layers are only a few tens of centimeters in vertical thickness. They have distinct physical, biological, chemical, optical and acoustical signatures. Thin layers of phytoplankton or zooplankton may contain densities of organisms ranging up to 1000 times those found just above, or below the structure.

These extraordinary concentrations of living material must have important implications for many aspects of marine ecology (e.g., phytoplankton growth dynamics, micro- and macrozooplankton grazing, behaviour, life histories, predation, harmful algal blooms), as well as for ocean optics and acoustics. Thin layers occur in a wide variety of ocean environments, including estuaries, fjords, bays, and the open ocean, and they are often associated with some form of vertical structure in the water column, such as a pycnocline, and in zones of reduced flow.


Upwelling is an oceanographic phenomenon that involves wind-driven motion of dense, cooler, and usually nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer, usually nutrient-depleted surface water. The nutrient-rich upwelled water stimulates the growth and reproduction of primary producers such as phytoplankton. Due to the biomass of phytoplankton and presence of cool water in these regions, upwelling zones can be identified by cool sea surface temperatures (SST) and high concentrations of chlorophyll-a.The increased availability of nutrients in upwelling regions results in high levels of primary production and thus fishery production. Approximately 25% of the total global marine fish catches come from five upwellings that occupy only 5% of the total ocean area. Upwellings that are driven by coastal currents or diverging open ocean have the greatest impact on nutrient-enriched waters and global fishery yields.


Zooplankton (, ) are heterotrophic (sometimes detritivorous) plankton (cf. phytoplankton). Plankton are organisms drifting in oceans, seas, and bodies of fresh water. The word zooplankton is derived from the Greek zoon (ζῴον), meaning "animal", and planktos (πλαγκτός), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". Individual zooplankton are usually microscopic, but some (such as jellyfish) are larger and visible to the naked eye.

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