Coccolithophore bloom off the southern coast of the UK seen from space. (Satellite Image: Andrew Wilson and Steve Groom)
This image is a color-coded map indicating where communities of phytoplankton, tiny plants living near the surface of the ocean, are very diverse (red) or low in diversity (blue). (Model Output: Sophie Clayton and Oliver Jahn, MIT)
Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that live in the surface of the oceans. You can't see them with the naked eye, but they play a crucial role in the Earth system. They produce roughly half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Despite their global importance, we know little about what processes control their ecology and even less about how they may respond to climate change. To further complicate things, "phytoplankton" is an umbrella term that includes a huge diversity of different organisms, covering a large range of different shapes and sizes. Phytoplankton are so tiny that most of them can't swim, and even those that have some mobility can't compete against the ocean's circulation. I work on trying to understand how ocean currents shape phytoplankton community structure: in other words, how do ocean currents control who lives where, if at all!
Last updated: June 28, 2012