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The ocean seasons

the ocean seasons

Les saisons de l'océan - The ocean seasons


As it is the case on land, seasons give rhythm to life in the world’s oceans. Seasons vary depending on the regions where people live (winter, summer, monsoons, …). They regulate several aspects of the environment such as sunlight, day length, water temperature and wind, which are all very important in determining phytoplankton. Profiling floats, which measure multiple physical and biological properties between the ocean’s surface and depth, are particularly relevant for observing the seasonal cycles of phytoplankton.

Question 1 : What are the seasons like in temperate and cold regions?

The Mediterranean Sea

In temperate regions (such as the Mediterranean Sea) or in colder regions (like the Labrador Sea in the northwestern North Atlantic Ocean), the seasons are very marked. These are regions with strong seasonality.



in winter

Villefranche-sur-Mer in stormy weatherVillefranche-sur-Mer in stormy weather

During winter, wind blows (there are sometimes storms), day length is short and the sun remains hidden behind clouds, water is cold. The ocean mixes vertically, sometimes over depths of several hundred meters. Vertical mixing replenishes the ocean’s surface with nutrients coming from the deep ocean and thus makes them available to phytoplankton, which live in surface waters. However, mixing also transports phytoplankton from surface to depth and from depth to surface. As a consequence, phytoplankton do not receive, on average, enough sunlight for achieving photosynthesis and growth.

in spring

Phytoplankton bloom observed in the Barents SeaPhytoplankton bloom observed in the North AtlanticOne has to wait until the end of winter or until spring to see phytoplankton grow. The sun shines again, the wind blows less and less, and the ocean surface gets warmer. In this ocean that has become calmer (the water column is said to be "stratified"), sunlit, and nutrient-rich, phytoplankton find optimal growth conditions. One may observe what oceanographers call a "phytoplankton bloom". Most often, the bloom is dominated by diatoms. Phytoplankton proliferate so much that the ocean turns green! This color is caused by high concentrations of chlorophyll a, a molecule that is found in all plants (among which phytoplankton) and enables them to capture sunlight.

in summer and autumn

The seasonal evolution of the chlorophyll a concentration As the season progresses, nutrients available in surface waters are depleted by phytoplankton growth. The concentration of nutrients becomes so low that it is insufficient to support the growth of new phytoplankton. The phytoplankton population is senescent and decaying. The largest phytoplankton cells or aggregates of cells, which are also the heaviest (often diatoms), sink towards the deep ocean. Other cells are consumed by zooplankton organisms, which could serve as food for fishes. The phytoplankton organisms that stay in surface waters mostly comprise small cells such as nano-flagellates or cyanobacteria. Then comes the end of summer, and autumn. After winter, a new seasonal cycle will begin.

+ To know more ...

To know more about the seasons like in temperate and cold regions ...

Expérience : Ressentir les effets de la "stratification" de la colonne d'eau ?
Lorsque l'on se baigne en été, l'eau de surface est chaude. Mais lorsque l'on plonge et que l'on descend un peu sous l'eau, on atteint à une certaine profondeur de l'eau plus froide. Cette transition entre l'eau chaude et l'eau froide, qu'on appelle "thermocline saisonnière", agit comme une barrière physique.
C'est ça, la stratification !


Question 2 : Do tropical oceans have seasons ?

Average chlorophyll concentration in the surface ocean

In low-latitude regions (these are the regions close to the equator, whose latitude is 0°), seasons are not as marked as in other regions. This occurs in immense oceanic areas, referred to as "subtropical gyres".
Subtropical gyres spread over more than 50% of the surface area of the world’s oceans and are like oceanic deserts. An example of subtropical gyre is the Sargasso Sea, in the North Atlantic Ocean.

unmarked seasons

In subtropical gyres, the water is warm and the sunlight is intense almost year round. Because the water column is stratified, no deep water can reach the surface layer which is consequently nutrient-poor most of the time. In these “oligotrophic” waters, phytoplankton are primarily composed of tiny cells belonging to the group of  cyanobacteria.

observing oceanic deserts

Pendant l’été austral, la quantité de chlorophylle a y est tellement faible que l’eau devient bleue profond, presque violette.Because they are so immense and so remote, oceanic deserts have long been poorly studied. Thanks to satellites, we know a little more about them today. For example, we know that the waters located in the Subtropical South Pacific Gyre (east of Polynesia) are the poorest in phytoplankton. During the austral summer there, the concentration of chlorophyll a is so low that the water turns deep blue, almost purple. Profiling floats are extremely relevant for the observation of oceanic deserts. Will these floats enable oceanographers to discover the existence of a seasonal cycle in oceanic deserts?

Question 3 : How will climate changes affect the seasons in the ocean ?

Hurricane Katrina

Climate changes will modify the environment in which phytoplankton live and grow. In which way? Oceanographers do not know yet, but they work hard to address that question.

responses of the ocean to climate changes

Researchers perform calculations that account for the predicted increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and in ocean temperature over the next 50 to 100 years. The first results indicate that oligotrophic regions could become more and more oligotrophic, and that at high latitudes, the favorable season for phytoplankton growth could become longer. The combined effects of these modifications could globally lead to a decrease in the primary production of the world’s oceans. The relative contribution to phytoplankton of large species may also diminish. However, these are only first results and a lot more work is needed to obtain robust predictions.

consequences on the biological carbon pump

Phytoplankton utilize CO2 from the atmosphere to build organic matter, and thus contribute to the biological carbon pump which sequesters CO2 in the deep ocean. If as predicted by researchers, phytoplankton production is modified over the next decades, the capacity of the ocean to biologically sequester CO2 could decline. Hence long-term changes in ocean’s seasons may have a strong impact on our planet.


Quizzes and games on the ocean seasons

Click on the image to start a quizz or game...

Quizz the ocean seasonsQuizz the ocean seasons puzzle-saison-bloom-advertPuzzle bloom



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