At the base of the ocean food web are single-celled algae and other plant-like organisms known as phytoplankton. Like plants on land, phytoplankton use chlorophyll and other light-harvesting pigments to carry out photosynthesis, absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce sugars for fuel. Chlorophyll in the water changes the way it reflects and absorbs sunlight, allowing scientists to map the amount and location of phytoplankton. These measurements give scientists valuable insights into the health of the ocean environment, and help scientists study the ocean carbon cycle.
The highest chlorophyll concentrations, where tiny surface-dwelling ocean plants are thriving, are in cold polar waters or in places where ocean currents bring cold water to the surface, such as around the equator and along the shores of continents. It is not the cold water itself that stimulates the phytoplankton. Instead, the cool temperatures are often a sign that the water has welled up to the surface from deeper in the ocean, carrying nutrients that have built up over time. In polar waters, nutrients accumulate in surface waters during the dark winter months when plants can’t grow. When sunlight returns in the spring and summer, the plants flourish in high concentrations.