For the first time in history, scientists* have succeeded in measuring the physiology of marine phytoplankton through satellite measurements of its fluorescence. With this new tool, it will become possible for researchers to continuously keep an eye on the ocean’s health and productivity. Since it is based on satellite images the method works all over the world.

“Until now we’ve really struggled to make this technology work and give us the information we need,” says Michael Behrenfeld, an Oregon State University professor of botany. “The fluorescence measurements allow us to see from outer space the faint red glow of tiny marine plants, all over the world, and tell whether or not they are healthy. That’s pretty cool.”

Knowing how the world’s phytoplankton populations are doing doesn’t only tell us about the plankton it self; it also provides us with valuable clues that can help us assess a long row of other processes on the planet. By studying phytoplankton, it is for instance possible to learn about climate change and desertification.

* The break through is the result of the successful collaboration of Oregon State University, the NASA Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Maine/Orono, University of California/Santa Barbara, University of Southern Mississippi, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cornell University, and the University of California/Irvine.