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These Satellite Pics of Baltic Algal Blooms Are Beautiful and Terrifying

A glimpse of the Baltic Sea’s 'dead zones.'
September 5, 2015, 9:01pm

Spaceflight has enabled humans to travel to exciting new worlds, but it also lets us experience our home planet from an entirely fresh perspective. What may seem like local anomalies can be revealed to be a sprawling global events when observed from outer space.

Take, for example, this newly released image from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2A satellite, which captures an enormous algal bloom in stunning detail.


The image is so sharp that you can make out a boat heading straight through the eye of this algal storm in the central Baltic Sea.

As beautiful as this flowering of life is to witness from space, its effect on the surrounding marine ecosystem is cause for concern. Algal creatures may be microscopic, but there are trillions upon trillions of them sucking carbon dioxide from their environment and producing oxygen.

That sounds like a good thing—and on a global level it is—but algal blooms also support bacteria that feed in the dead algae, depleting the environment of oxygen. These bacterial organisms have thrived in the Baltic Sea, which is now home to the biggest ocean "dead zone" in the world.

What's more, the microorganisms that create these stunning biological art shows are more successful in warmer waters, so climate change has greatly expanded their range and the intensity of these summer blooms.

"We've had enormous algal blooms here the last few years which have affected the whole ecosystem," Peter Westman, a Swedish wildlife expert and environmental manager, told National Geographic. "There are no quick fixes, unfortunately."

A widefield version of the picture. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA

These kinds of expansive ecological disruptions are precisely what Sentinel-2A was sent into space to monitor. The satellite launched on June 23 of this year, as part of ESA's larger Copernicus programme, and it will be joined by its twin partner, Sentinel-2B, sometime in the summer of 2016.

Much like NASA Earth Observatory, the Copernicus mission aims to use sophisticated satellite constellations to keep tabs on developing environmental crises around the globe. The idea is to better understand the drastic changes Earth is experiencing as a result of human activity, and predict where floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters are most likely to emerge.

"Sentinel-2 is the second satellite of a constellation of 20 satellites which will scrutinise planet Earth," said ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain in a statement. "[It] will vastly improve the ability of Copernicus to provide European citizens with the most comprehensive data for environmental and security applications available anywhere in the world."

The Baltic bloom. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA

As with the recent NASA announcement about rising sea levels, it's a little disconcerting that these satellite networks can only monitor the deteriorating health of the Earth, not prevent it.

But hopefully watching our planet from these new orbital viewpoints will encourage the ground effort to protect it. After all, there's nothing like seeing a problem from a distance to help put it in perspective.