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Rare Algal Bloom in Santa Barbara Channel Delights UCSB Researchers

Oceanographers have lost sleep studying the phytoplanktonic organism that recently turned the Pacific Ocean a brilliant turquoise-white color

The turquoise color of the Santa Barbara Channel over the past week is due to a bloom of a chalk-forming phytoplankton called coccolithophores.
The turquoise color of the Santa Barbara Channel over the past week is due to a bloom of a chalk-forming phytoplankton called coccolithophores. ( David Valentine / UC Santa Barbara photo)

The Pacific Ocean turned a brilliant turquoise-white color the past week, to the delight of UC Santa Barbara researchers, who haven’t seen an algal bloom of that magnitude locally since the 1980s. 

It’s good they’re excited because those same researchers marveling at the phytoplanktonic organism responsible — the coccolithophores — haven’t gotten much sleep since.

The team of oceanography experts has worked long hours in the lab to experiment with samples taken from waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, where the microscopic organisms — a thousands times smaller than a millimeter — usually reside unseen.

Researchers aren’t sure why the phenomenon typically occurring in higher latitudes has graced Santa Barbara’s shores, but they’re determined to find out.

The answer could affect global warming and climate change.

“To have this blooming at my doorstep is wonderful,” said biological oceanographer Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, who has been studying coccolithophores for decades.

Researchers care about coccolithophores because they’re a leading defense in protecting the atmosphere from carbon dioxide.

They absorb carbon from the air and produce solid plates of chalk — calcium carbonate  — they then shed, sinking to the ocean floor.

“If we want to figure out why it is happening now, we have to catch the before, the during and the after,” Iglesias-Rodriguez said. “We found just over 5 million cells per liter of water.”

An ecotype of the coccolithophore species Gephyrocapsa oceanica taken from Santa Barbara Channel water samples. (Paul Matson / UC Santa Barbara photo)

For perspective, a typical large algal bloom is closer to 1 million, she said.

“If you’re in the ocean going through it, you have to wear sunglasses,” she continued. “They are so bright. In the open ocean they can cover hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

"Because they grow in these huge numbers, suddenly they start dividing faster and faster. This is what we call blooms. What we saw the other day was one of these really big events.”

Last Thursday was the bloom’s peak, according to satellite images, Iglesias-Rodriguez said, since it was sunny and the water was calm — two things coccolithophores need to survive in the “strikingly beautiful” state she calls “milky water.”

She said the bloom was fading this week because skies are cloudy, but she wouldn’t be surprised if it pops back up over summer during prime bloom conditions.

“We’re going to keep an eye on it the next few years,” Iglesias-Rodriguez said, adding that research results would be released in coming months. “The oceans are becoming more acidic. The big concern is whether and to what extent these organisms will continue to make this chalky material, whether organisms will continue doing well. It could be a stress response. It could be a response to some favorable condition for them. I’m really excited.” 

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Campus point at UCSB also shows evidence of the coccolithophore bloom. These phytoplankton shed calcium carbonate, which changes the water color. (David Valentine / UC Santa Barbara photo)

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