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Ocean’s Color creates Hurricanes

January 3, 2011

Crystals scatter white light in all colors

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A change in the color of ocean waters could have a drastic effect on the prevalence of hurricanes, new research indicates. In a simulation of such a change in one region of the North Pacific, the study finds that hurricane formation decreases by 70 percent. That would be a big drop for a region that accounts for more than half the world’s reported hurricane-force winds. [cited from UnderwaterTimes]


I remember being on a conference in Budapest in 1998, where a scientist (Dr. Marlon Lewis) – he is a specialist in phytoplankton optics and a great biological oceanographer – showed that a bit more phytoplankton in the upper regions of the ocean, at the right places, can dramatically influence storms and even El Niña events.

This is not because algal cells scatter light, but because they absorb light – and subsequently, convert only a fraction of the absorbed light (at red wavelengths)  into biochemical energy which is used to fix carbon dioxide and making oxygen. The rest of the spectral energy is ultimately being dissipated as heat again. All this takes place on short time scales, as you can feel when you put two bottles with water, one with ink, one without, in front of a window: the colored bottle will heat up very fast.

But even on a slower time scale, days to weeks, part of the absorbed solar energy is released again as part of the phytoplankton is being eaten (rather than continuing to divide into daughter cells)…and the guys metabolizing the algal dinner will give off heat – even bacteria do that!

It is due to both immediate and slow effects, that the presence/absence of phytoplankton in the upper water column has a measurable impact on the energy balance of the surface water and the atmosphere on top of it. Since algae are present over large surface areas, a change in their abundance can drive an enormous difference in energy fluxes….even large enough to create hurricanes – as is discussed in more detail in the referenced web page – or the strength of El Niña/Niño events – as Dr. Marlon Lewis had calculated long before climate change became a daily topic.

via UnderwaterTimes | Research: Ocean’s Color Affects Hurricane Path.

Also commented at the blog WyrdScience

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