Phytoplankton are very small, they have only one cell.  Humans have about 100 trillion cells!

So why are they so important?

Phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain.  Ocean animals both big and small depend on them for food.

3.melt pond

Melt Pond

They are plant-like and need sunlight, nutrients (like vitamins to humans), and carbon dioxide to survive.  Phytoplankton use the energy from the sun to make their own food.  They also release oxygen just like trees.  However, phytoplankton make MOST of the oxygen on Earth!  So, they are important to humans as well as animals.  Since they need sunlight to grow-they must live near the surface of the water.  Scientists used to think that phytoplankton grew only in open water.  In 2011 they made an amazing discovery!  During an Arctic research cruise on the Healy, they found that phytoplankton were blooming under the sea ice!!   The ice in the Arctic is not as thick as it used to be because Earth’s climate is changing.  There are also more melt ponds on the surface of the ice than there used to be.  Melt ponds allow light to pass through the ice into the ocean underneath.  On this cruise, scientists will be studying the conditions that encourage the phytoplankton to grow under the ice.

About The Author

Jan Arrigo

Jan currently teaches Kindergarten and First grade in Palo Alto, CA. She looks forward to a new challenge in the Fall of both Second and Fourth grades. Her main focus on the Healy will be to bring real world Science to elementary school students through text, pictures, videos and live streaming.

3 Responses

  1. Erin Curtis

    If phytoplankton help reduce carbon dioxide on Earth, what would an increase amount of phytoplankton do for carbon dioxide amounts?

    • Ben Harden
      Ben Harden

      Hi Erin, thanks for the comment. It’s a really interesting question in the context of our changing climate, especially in the Arctic. With a reduced and thinner ice cover, there’s a possibility that more phytoplankton will be blooming for longer in the year due to the increase in light available to them. This would have the effect of potentially storing some of the excess carbon we are producing. It may slow down the effects of climate change a little, but it’s probably not going to be enough given the amount of carbon dioxide we are currently emitting. We’re emitting too much for them to make any substantial difference.

      • Erin Curtis

        Thank you so much for answering, the work you are doing is important and I really look forward to reading what else you do while out on the ice. I am a teacher at eagle rock Elementry and I love sharing the science with my students. Again thank you..

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