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The surreal swirls of ocean plankton blooms, seen from space

When tiny plant-like organisms float to the surface of the ocean, the result looks like a painting, on a global scale.
  • Johnny Simon
By Johnny Simon

Deputy Photo Editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Yes, those are clouds you’re seeing, but they’re not floating over the sea—they’re under it.

Phytoplankton and algae inhabit bodies of water around the world. When clusters of the tiny plants multiply near the ocean’s surface, where light is plentiful and the water is warmer, they change how light reflects off the water. Blooms often pop up in spring, when warmer waters and more sunlight produce optimal growing conditions, but they can be triggered by different factors: Agricultural runoff can lead to a spike in phytoplankton production, while some believe that the chaos of seas in the winter spare the plankton from being eaten, leading to an accumulation until spring arrives.

Suddenly, this photosynthesis free-for-all is visible from space.

Here are some of the most lovely and surreal blooms captured by NASA satellites or seen from the International Space Station over the years.


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