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NASA scientists studying North Atlantic from above

Researchers aim to identify cause of massive phytoplankton bloom

NASA study 2:32

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"It's really cool!"

Jennifer Schulien, a researcher with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sponsored study stands in a hangar at St. John's International Airport, in front of a massive C-130 Hercules airplane.

For the next few weeks, the plane will be part of a NASA study, aimed at answering an important question here on earth: What is causing an explosion of phytoplankton on the North Atlantic ocean?

Phytoplankton blooms, seen from above

(NASA)

Microscopic image of phytoplankton

NASA images of phytoplankton blooms. (NASA)

It's an important question because emissions from plankton — microscopic marine plants — are so great they may actually influence the earth's climate.

Schulien and others on the NASA team will observe the plankton bloom from above, using the Hercules, and from the below, onboard the research vessel Atlantis.

"Really you can't get a complete picture of what is happening in the ocean from one platform." Schulien says.

Understanding climate change

This five-year project is challenging the belief that plankton need heat to bloom.

The deputy project scientist for this research, Richard Moore, said that recent science suggests the plankton bloom may actually be sparked by cool winter temperatures.

"Which is it?" said Moore. "Will increase in temperature and sunlight increase the plankton or decrease the plankton?"

Richard Moore, NASA researcher, onboard Hercules C130

Richard Moore, deputy project scientist, onboard the research plane. (NASA)

Scientists say if they can figure out which conditions trigger plankton growth, they will have a better understanding of how climate change may play out.

"Because that is really what's going to make a difference in refining the estimates and give policy makers and citizens the information they need to make decisions going forward." said Moore.

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