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Is NASA’s Space Laser The Hope In Saving The World?

First Posted: Dec 28, 2016 03:00 AM EST

The Earth's ecosystem is a complex structure that lies in the fate of microscopic underwater plants thriving in the North Pole. A new study using NASA's satellite instrument has found that small environmental changes in polar food webs could impact the peak or decline cycles of phytoplankton, a building block to the entire oceanic food chain.

NASA released a decade's worth of data and images shedding light on the boom-and-bust cycles of polar phytoplankton. The result of the study shows that even the slightest environmental changes in the polar food webs could greatly influence the microalgae. These microscopic plants are essential in the ecosystem because they have the ability to suck out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

"It's really important for us to understand what controls these boom-and-bust cycles, and how they might change in the future so we can better evaluate the implications on all other parts of the food web," Michael Behrenfeld, a marine plankton expert at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said in a press release by NASA.

In the past, these tiny green plants weret truly hard to monitor. Usually, only satellite sensors that can measure light reflected off the ocean's surface are used to assess phytoplankton levels. Now, NASA's new space laser, dubbed as the Cloud-Aerosol Lldar with Orthogonal Polarization (CALIOP) gave scientists NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, a better view of the ocean's microscopic plants.

"CALIOP was a game-changer in our thinking about ocean remote sensing from space," Chris Hostetler, a research scientist at Langley, said. "We were able to study the workings of the high-latitude ocean ecosystem during times of year when we were previously completely blind," he added.

Moreover, new lidar technology is now being developed and tested to help scientists measure how these tiny plants are distributed through the sunlit layer of the ocean. The new discovery will pave way for more assessments on phytoplankton concentrations and photosynthesis.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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