Bio-luminescent San Diego, California!

Late last week, Pacific Ocean visitors near San Diego, California, USA were able to see an amazing sight that doesn’t happen very often… glowing waves!

So what exactly is the process that causes the glowing waves?

Algae!  This particular type of algae, Lingulodinium polyedrum, began blooming in late August.  During the day, the waters off the coast of California turn a brownish-red color, according to The University of California – San Diego scientists.  Take a look at what this microorganism looks like under a microscope:

Picture of Lingulodinium polyedrum

Image from The Smithsonian


But while the ocean during the day looks quite murky, the ocean at night is a much more exciting experience.  Each microorganism will give off a flash of blue light when moved around.  So while one of these organisms is difficult to see in such a large body of water, imagine uncountable numbers being moved all at once!  For more information on the chemistry behind bio-luminescence, take a look at The University of California – Santa Barbara’s website dedicated to this phenomena.

Typically algae blooms are not welcome in bodies of water. Harmful algal blooms can cause significant problems for humans and sea life.  This specific type of algae produces mild toxins that can harm sea life, while only causing minor sinus and ear infections in humans who swim in algae-infested waters.

While the most favorable conditions for algae blooms aren’t readily understood, many scientists believe the right combination of available nutrients, nutrient ratio, and water temperature are the main causes.  So a GLOBE school that is near the ocean may be able to use hydrology protocols, such as water temperature, to monitor water temperatures and note the relationship between temperature and algae growth.

If you live in Southern California, and you are able to head to the beaches, you’re in for a sight!  If you live in another part of the world, here’s a video from Man’s Best Media showing the electrifying effect of this algae.

Red tides don’t only occur on the Pacific Coast of the United States.  They can occur off the coast of Australia, The United Kingdom, and Chile.  For example, in 2010, more toxic algae bloomed in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden.  Here’s an image of this bloom, taken by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite on July 11th, from the BBC.

2010 Baltic Sea Red Tide

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