The clearly visible green phytoplankton bloom during the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

The plainly visible green phytoplankton flower throughout the 2018 Kilauea eruption.
Image: USGS Coastguard

Volcanic eruptions are normally associated with death and destruction, but the recent eruptions on Hawaii’s Big Island led to an unforeseen biological boom– a massive plume of algae extending for hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean.

From May to August 2018, a continuous eruption at Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano resulted in the putting of countless cubic meters of molten lava into the North Pacific Ocean. The eruption created chaos for regional citizens, who stressed over hazardous gas plumes saturated with hydrochloric acid and glass particles. But the sluggish and tiresome effusive eruptions at Kilauea led to something rather unforeseen: a large blossom of surface-dwelling, photosynthetic microbes called phytoplankton.

New research study published this week in the journal Science explains this blossom and how the copious quantities of molten lava, at temperatures reaching 1,170 degrees Celsius (2,140 degrees Fahrenheit), activated its unanticipated appearance.

The research study, co-led by Sam Wilson from the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa and Nick Hawco from the University of Southern California (USC), improves our understanding of phytoplankton flowers and the conditions under which they form (extremely essential given the sudden rise in algae blossoms!), while showcasing a previously unknown mechanism responsible for sustaining phytoplankton growth.

A mere three days after the Kilauea eruptions began, researchers spotted the phytoplankton flower in satellite photos in the kind of a big green blob of chlorophyll– a light-harvesting pigment utilized by phytoplankton to bring out photosynthesis. Scientists from the UH Manoa Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) sprang to action, chartering the research study vessel Ka’imikai- O-Kanaloa and cruising out to the website to analyze the blossom and study its effects in real time. It was an unmatched opportunity to study a nutrient-poor marine community and examine its reaction to a sudden and huge inflow of molten lava.

Steam produced by molten lava pouring into the North Pacific Ocean.

Steam produced by molten lava putting into the North Pacific Ocean.
Image: Scott Rowland, UH

From July 13 to 17, 2018, while Kilauea was still in the throes of its extended tantrum, the scientists measured water chemistry and biological activity in the locations near where the lava was putting into the ocean. Back at the lab, the group, with help from USC scientists, learned that the process was considerably more nuanced than just the introduction of warm water and molten lava.

As their lab experiments showed, an essential part of the process included high concentrations of nitrate. Trouble is, basaltic lava is basically devoid of nitrogen– a natural fertilizer of both terrestrial and marine plant life.

” There was no reason for us to expect that an algae blossom like this would happen,” Seth John, a co-author of the study and a geologist at USC Dornsife, stated in a USC news release “Lava does not include any nitrate.”

Instead, the hot lava churned the environment near the seafloor, requiring nutrient-rich waters to the surface area. The phytoplankton living on top, sunlit ocean layer were suddenly gifted a genuine Jacobean Banquet of nutrients, resulting in a feeding frenzy that led to the algae’s dramatic development.

” We hypothesize that the high nitrate was triggered by buoyant plumes of nutrient-rich deep waters produced by the significant input of lava into the ocean,” the study authors composed.

Indeed, the extensive green plume was unexpectedly packed with the essential ingredients for algae development, specifically high levels of nitrate, silicic acid, iron, and phosphate. Remarkably, this exact same type of upwelling of nutrients from deep waters happens naturally along the California coast as an effect of strong ocean currents, rather than the effects of scorching hot molten lava.

Steam produced by molten lava pouring into the North Pacific Ocean.

Steam produced by molten lava pouring into the North Pacific Ocean.
Image: Ryan Tabata, UH

The finding “enhances our understanding of lava-seawater interactions within the much broader context of land-ocean connections,” stated Wilson in a UH news release

3 weeks after the eruptions started, the blooms, rather incredibly, extended outward for almost a hundred miles off the Hawaiian coast. In the months that followed, the plume grew further still. The plume continued to remain as the eruptions continued, but it rapidly disappeared when the lava stopped streaming into the ocean. For the phytoplankton, the party was suddenly over.

An ocean fertilization occasion of this nature has never been recorded before, but it’s possible this process has taken place in other places, both in Hawaii and other volcanically active areas. Talking to the New York Times, Harriet Alexander from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who’s not affiliated with the new research study, stated volcanoes “could be a quite important chauffeur of phytoplankton ecology in the broader ocean.”

Looking ahead, the researchers would like to examine the swimming pools of water that now appear along the bottom of the volcano’s crater flooring. There’s still lots to learn about volcanoes’ unexpected ability to foster life.

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