NASA satellite data was used for the first time to analyze the biology of hot spots along the coast of Antarctica. The biological oases are open waters, called polynyas, where blooming plankton support the local food chain.
CREDIT: NOAA Corps Collection
Adelie Penguins at a RookeryCredit: NOAA NESDIS, ORA
The research found a strong association between the well being of Adelie Penguin populations in the Antarctic and the productivity of plankton in the polynyas. Polynyas are areas of open water or reduced ice cover, where one might expect sea ice. They are usually created by strong winds that blow ice away from the coast leaving open areas, or by gaps appearing on the oceans surface, when flowing ice gets blocked by an impediment, like an ice shelf.
The Antarctic waters are rich in nutrients. The lack of ice, combined with shallow coastal waters, provides the top layers of the ocean with added sunlight, so polynyas offer ideal conditions for phytoplankton blooms. Because the ice around polynyas is thin in the early spring when the long Austral day begins, they are the first areas to get strong sunlight. The open waters retain more heat, further thinning ice cover and leading to early, intense, and short-lived plankton blooms. These blooms feed krill, a tiny, shrimp-like animal, which in turn are eaten by Adelie Penguins, seabirds, seals, whales, and other animals.
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