People in New Jersey are being treated to images of a coast that looks like something straight out of the Caribbean. The bright turquoise water is even visible from space, as you can see in the image below from NASA’s Earth Observatory, which was taken on July 6, 2016:
While it might look beautiful from space, the drastic colour-change pictured above is actually happening for a counterintuitive reason. An upset in the delicate balance of life in the water has spawned the exponential growth of certain species of algae, or phytoplankton. These growth events are called phytoplankton blooms, and they can happen for a variety of reasons — some benign, others harmful.
In this case, scientists think that the bloom was caused by upwelling, an often-harmless phenomenon that occurs when winds blow surface waters away from the coast and deeper, colder, and nutrient-dense waters rise up to fill the gap.
“These upwellings occur every summer, and fuel large phytoplankton blooms,” Oscar Schofield, a marine scientist at Rutgers University, told NASA. “Studies have suggested these summer upwelling events occur several times each summer and lead to large blooms that can discolor the water.”
Scientists don’t know yet if the current bloom will cause any harm, but so far it appears to be benign.
But while some blooms are harmless, others can be harmful — both for the creatures that live in the water and the people who live nearby. The overgrowth of phytoplankton can deplete the oxygen in the water and cause fish and other marine species to suffocate. It can also lead to the production of toxins, which can harm both aquatic life and humans.
Last year, a summer bloom off of the coasts of New York and New Jersey grew to massive proportions. Researchers said that it was likely influenced by local pollution, such as sewage being dumped into the water.
On the West Coast, another 2015 summer phytoplankton bloom created marble-like turquoise patterns that extended from central Washington to the Oregon-California border. Marine biologists there found substantial populations of Pseudo-nitzschia, a genus of diatoms that produces domoic acid, in the waters. When concentrated in the flesh of crabs and shellfish, the acid is a neurotoxin and can cause shellfish poisoning in people.
Don’t be fooled: The turquoise colour of these blooms is very different from the clear waters of the Caribbean
While the bright turquoise water you see in the images above might look like the pristine waters you see in the Caribbean, they couldn’t be more different.
Somewhat counterintuitively, cloudy, grayish-looking water — like the stuff you normally see off the Jersey Shore — is actually often richer in nutrients than the clear, sparkling waters of the Caribbean. That’s because that murky water is typically home to more living organisms, including phytoplankton (like the stuff seen growing exponentially in the pictures above) and zooplankton (jellyfish and other ocean-wandering animals). These organisms make the water appear cloudy. In the Caribbean, on the other hand, there are very few nutrients in the water, which leaves the water looking sparkly and crystal-clear.
Sediments play a role in this, too. Off the coasts of California and New York, for example, finer particles like sand and silt can add to the water’s murkiness since they’re easily agitated and stay afloat for long periods. On the other hand, the sediments off clearer coasts may be heavier and coarser. Instead of fine sand, these sediments are often made up of things like pieces of shells and chunks of dead coral, which are often tougher to stir up.
So if you’re thinking that the turquoise water off of New Jersey is a sign that the water is at all like the oceans of the Dominican Republic or the Bahamas, think again.
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