The Gulf of Oman, found north of the Arabian Sea separating Oman and Iran, is home to bright green algae blooms twice every year. But while they may be a sight to behold, they can be concerning for the local ecosystems.
These Mexico-sized blooms are brought about by billion-year-old microscopic algae Noctiluca scintillans, which just three decades ago were invisible but now form bigger and last longer than expected.
Experts are blaming them on warming waters and climate change, fearing the consequences they have on zooplankton and the ocean’s ecology as a whole.
From Green Blooms To ‘Blue Tears’
Scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory attribute the algae blooms to climate change, specifically melting ice in the Himalayas, the Associated Press reported. Less ice raises South Asian temperatures and fortifies Indian Ocean’s southwest monsoons moving to the Arabian Sea, mobilizing oxygen-deficient water that enables algal growth.
In the Gulf of Oman, the algae look green. In other parts of the world, it could show up differently: Florida’s algae blooms are red and those in the North Atlantic are chalky white, while in Taiwan they are referred to as “blue tears.”
“It’s like a Van Gogh painting,” said Paula Bontempi of NASA, which uses satellites and floating robotic machines to track the blooms. She was pertaining to the satellite images, dubbing the chlorophyll-rich views “absolutely beautiful.”
Up close, however, the blooms are far less enticing — they are mushy and have ammonia secretions that emit an off-putting stench.
How Blooms Wreck Ecosystems
Upon closer inspection, algae blooms not only look and smell bad, but also have a crucial impact on local environments. Algae can paralyze fish, clog their gills, and obtain sufficient oxygen to suffocate the creatures. Algal toxins have also poisoned animals such as turtles, dolphins, and whales, both in the Atlantic and Pacific regions.
In rare cases, these toxins went beyond maiming marine food chains and killing people, according to the U.N. science agency as quoted by AP.
Current satellite capabilities have enabled researchers to associate algae to greater air and water pollution levels, although this needs further investigation.
In Oman, the blooms also potentially clog intake pipes from the desalinization plants churning out a staggering 90 percent of the country’s fresh water.
Calling these blooms “tiny plants with a toxic punch,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that harmful algae blooms have been reported in every coastal state in the United States at an increasing presence. The agency’s forecasts alert coastal managers to likely occurrences before they lead to serious damage.
Recently released NASA satellite images captured eerie green ice formations in Antarctica that scientists attribute to microalgae or microscopic marine plants. The discolored ice is thought to be the result of photosynthetic plankton usually present at the water's surface but has been undergoing an unusual blooming episode.
In their quest to find out more about the microalgae’s prolonged bloom season, researchers are venturing into the area, called Granite Harbor, this April.
"Do these kinds of late-season 'blooms' provide the seeding conditions for the next spring's bloom?" wondered marine glaciologist Jan Lieser, seeking to find out what happens to the microscopic plants once the algae gets into the sea ice and becomes dormant in the winter.