The oceans have their desert zones, in other words areas poor in nutrients and unfavourable for phytoplankton to develop. Half of the southern Pacific thus consists of great expanses of warm water with an average temperature of 28 °C (a greater surface area than Europe), which receives no input of deep-source cold water, rich in nutrient salts.
However, in 2000 analyses of satellite observations on the colour of the ocean conducted by American scientists revealed unusually high concentrations of chlorophyll -the green pigment carried by phytoplankton- in these unfertile areas. These accumulations were associated with the movement of Rossby waves and variations in ocean height they generate (2). An initial hypothesis proposed that Rossby waves induce an intermixing which prompts intermingling between the layers of warm water at the surface and the deep cold nutrient-rich water levels. This mixing wouls generate surface influx of nitrates, favourable for phytoplankton development. This hypothesis cannot explain, however, why the chlorophyll concentration peaks are always observed at the warmest spots where the water accumulates under the effect of the passing waves.
The IRD oceanographers and their co-workers investigating these effects (1) consider rather that the Rossby waves act like a rake over the ocean surface, in this way concentrating all floating particles or debris in these places where warmer water accumulates owing to greater sun exposure. This excludes the possibility of nutrients ascending from the deep cold waters by mixing. In the convergence zones produced by wave movements, there would not be any new production of phytoplankton as had been suggested, but rather an accumulation of floating organic particles of a different origin. This floating material’s optical properties are similar to those of chlorophyll, so it gives the same effect as captured by satellite observation of ocean colour, in a way misleading the calculation systems which use these satellite colour data to estimate the chlorophyll concentration.
Marie Guillaume | IRD
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