Columbia team helps investigate algae bloom near Kilauea eruption

July 19, 2018 by Marie Denoia Aronsohn, Columbia University
Columbia team helps investigate algae bloom near Kilauea eruption
Regions of high chlorophyll off the east coast of Hawaii’s Big Island indicate an algae bloom. Scientists rushed to investigate. Credit: Satellite images provided by Ricardo Letelier, Oregon State University

Hawaii's Kilauea volcanic eruption, which continues spewing ash and lava, has been disrupting life on the Big Island. Since it began in May, the eruption has forced the evacuation of thousands of people, decimated more than 600 homes, and now is even impacting the state's agriculture industry. However, it has also created a rare opportunity for scientists to investigate how these events influence ocean life.

Satellite images have revealed elevated chlorophyll levels in the near the eruption zone, indicating an algae bloom. Late last week, a rapid response team of scientists rushed to investigate the bloom as well as Kilauea's impacts on other ocean processes east of the Big Island. A group from Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are participating in the study, which is led by scientists at the University of Hawai'i Manoa.

Algae are a type of phytoplankton, a class of photosynthetic microbes that live on the ocean surface, where they use chlorophyll to harvest light, draw in CO2, and produce oxygen. These tiny cells do a big job in the ocean, trapping CO2 and serving as the foundation of the . Knowing what contributes to phytoplankton blooms is critical for understanding ocean health.

The researchers are sampling the water and will study its contents to discover how the volcanic eruption is influencing ocean chemistry, phytoplankton activities, and ecosystem processes. The team suspects the phytoplankton may be flourishing thanks to elevated nutrients delivered by lava and ash.

Lamont microbial oceanographer Sonya Dyhrman and a team from her lab will receive samples from the region of high chlorophyll to characterize which phytoplankton are there, and how chemistry changes in the water might be allowing them to grow. Dyhrman is a SCOPE Investigator, which is how she got involved with the rapid response team. SCOPE, the acronym for Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology, is a cross-disciplinary effort funded by the Simons Foundation to measure and model the critical activities of marine microbes, like phytoplankton, in the North Pacific Ocean.

Often, research cruises are planned years in advance. In this case, rapid deployment was necessary, Dyhrman explained, because , like the one captured in the , are ephemeral. So it is vitally important to sample them quickly.

"This is particularly true when the potential cause of the bloom is from the chemically unique water or ash being discharged into the ocean from the volcano, which is in itself temporally unpredictable," said Dyhrman. One idea is that volcanic inputs rich in resources like iron or phosphorus, which are commonly at low levels in surface waters of the North Pacific, might be fueling growth.

Over the coming months, Dyhrman's lab will analyze the samples collected by the and compare them to typical conditions. She says the event is "Like a very large-scale laboratory experiment, but in the natural environment. While volcanic eruptions occur worldwide, they don't always occur in a location that is so close to the ocean, and relatively accessible, so this is a unique opportunity."

Explore further: Image: Spring color in the North Sea

Related Stories

Image: Spring color in the North Sea

May 9, 2018

The increasing sunlight and warmth of springtime provoke buds and blooms amidst the trees, flowers, and grasses on land. Warm air and sunlight also beget warmer ocean waters and provoke blooms of the "grass of the sea"—phytoplankton. ...

Volcano fuels massive phytoplankton bloom

October 6, 2010

Advocates for seeding regions of the ocean with iron to combat global warming should be interested in a new study published today in Geophysical Research Letters.

Image: Phytoplankton Bloom in the North Atlantic

May 26, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Late May 2010 brought peacock-hued swirls of blue and green to the North Atlantic. The iridescent waters formed a giant arc hundreds of kilometers across, extending from west of Ireland to the Bay of Biscay.

Robots aid better understanding of phytoplankton blooms

January 15, 2018

Phytoplankton blooms are one of the most important factors contributing to the efficiency of the carbon pump in the North Atlantic Ocean. To better understand this phenomenon, the ERC remOcean project, led by researchers ...

Recommended for you

Death near the shoreline, not life on land

December 13, 2018

Our understanding of when the very first animals started living on land is helped by identifying trace fossils—the tracks and trails left by ancient animals—in sedimentary rocks that were deposited on the continents.

The long dry: global water supplies are shrinking

December 13, 2018

A global study has found a paradox: our water supplies are shrinking at the same time as climate change is generating more intense rain. And the culprit is the drying of soils, say researchers, pointing to a world where drought-like ...

New climate model to be built from the ground up

December 13, 2018

Facing the certainty of a changing climate coupled with the uncertainty that remains in predictions of how it will change, scientists and engineers from across the country are teaming up to build a new type of climate model ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.