A Bloom in the Strait of Hormuz


A phytoplankton bloom appeared in one of the world’s busiest oil waterways.

Each day, ships carry about 20 million barrels (3 million cubic meters) of crude oil—nearly a quarter of global petroleum liquids consumption—through the Strait of Hormuz. It is one of the world’s most important oil passages. Recently something more than ships was passing through the strait.

On October 16, 2019, the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite captured this image of swirls of phytoplankton in the Strait of Hormuz.

The image appears like a watercolor painting—a blend of art and science. Like a photographer adjusting lighting and using filters, Norman Kuring of NASA’s Ocean Biology group works with various software programs and color-filtering techniques to draw out the fine details in the water. The detailed swirls in the chlorophyll-rich water are all quite real; Kuring simply separates and enhances certain shades and tones in the data to make the biomass more visible.

Phytoplankton are plant-like organisms that serve as the center of the aquatic food web. Phytoplankton abundance depends on the availability of sunlight and nutrients, but can be influenced by other factors like water temperature, salinity, and depth; winds; and the number of marine animals grazing on them. When conditions are right, phytoplankton populations can grow explosively, a phenomenon known as a bloom.

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Image via NASA Earth Observatory