Scientists say ocean currents cause microbes to filter light

February 24, 2011

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Adding particles to liquids to make currents visible is a common practice in the study of fluid mechanics, one that was adopted and perfected by artist Paul Matisse in sculptures he calls Kalliroscopes. Matisse’s glass-enclosed liquid sculptures contain an object whose movement through the liquid creates whorls that can be seen only because elongated particles trailing the object align with the direction of the current; light reflects off the particles, making the current visible to the viewer.

Researchers at MIT recently demonstrated that this same phenomenon is responsible for the swirling patterns scientists typically see when they agitate a flask containing microbes in water; many microbes are themselves elongated particles that make the whorls visible. More importantly, they say this phenomenon occurs in the ocean when elongated microbes caught in a current align horizontally with the ocean surface, affecting how much light goes into the ocean and how much bounces off as backscatter. Because many ocean microbes, like large phytoplankton, have either an elongated shape or live in communities of long chains, this orientation to ocean currents could have a substantial effect on ocean light — which in turn influences photosynthesis and phytoplankton growth rates — as well as on satellite readings of light backscatter used to inform climate models or assess algal blooms.

In a quiescent ocean, phytoplankton are randomly oriented and light filters through easily. This random arrangement is usually assumed in models of light propagation in the ocean and in satellite readings. But fluid flow can change things.

“Even small shear rates can increase backscattering from blooms of large