UMaine oceanographer helps solve puzzle behind tiny plants with big effects

Posted July 07, 2012, at 5:46 p.m.
Last modified July 08, 2012, at 6:09 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — Life abounds in the North Atlantic during the spring and summer in the form of microscopic plant plankton, and a University of Maine researcher is part of the group that recently figured out why.

The results of a study reported this month in the journal Science show that the spring phytoplankton bloom in the subpolar North Atlantic can start up to a month earlier than scientists previously thought thanks to the whirlpools, or eddies, on the ocean surface.

The eddies keep the phytoplankton near the surface, which allows the microscopic plant life to grow and thrive. Without the eddies, they’d be forced below and further from the sunlight.

“We solved a puzzle that had been puzzling oceanographers for decades,” said Mary Jane Perry, an oceanographer with UMaine’s Darling Marine Center who was one of the lead researchers in the experiment.

“We now know that events, such as the spring bloom, make the difference in terms of what will happen in carbon flux,” she said Friday. “And because there is connectivity between the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Maine, with some of the northern water traveling to Maine, the North Atlantic is a harbinger of what may happen here.”

Understanding how, when and why the phytoplankton grow is vital to understanding ocean life as a whole because they’re at the base of the ocean ecosystem and “kickstart the seasonal food web,” Perry said.

Phytoplankton also help maintain a healthy atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide, much like forests. The North Atlantic alone is responsible for more than 20 percent of the ocean’s uptake of carbon dioxide.

“Tiny plankton play a big role in global carbon cycle,” Perry said.

The National Science Foundation-funded study also was a prime example of collaboration and what modern research should look like, according to Perry.

A team of 26 researchers from five countries collaborated on the project, which started in 2008. Undergraduate and graduate students, including six from UMaine, also took part.

Perry said oceanographic research is changing, with robots becoming more and more integral to studies. A combination of underwater “glider” and floating robots gathered a full three months of data on their own.

“It shows how real cutting-edge science is done today,” Perry said.