Satellite Video Shows Struggling Seas

SeaWiFS satellite images of ocean color show Earth's sea life struggling in warming oceans. Colors show the different concentrations of chlorophyll, a pigmnet crucial for in plants and other photosyntetic organisms that form the base of the world's food chains: Purples and blues show lowest concentrations, while greens, yellows and reds show increasing concentrations of chlorophyll. (Image credit: Michael Behrenfeld, Oregon State University/NASA)

The ocean's cerulean, aquamarine and emerald hues offer more than artistic inspiration—they reveal how sea biology is struggling with climate change.

NASA's Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) has constantly measured ocean color as an indicator of sea life productivity since the satellite reached orbit in 1997. Combined with ocean temperature data, the observations suggest climate change is playing a big role in negatively altering ocean ecosystems.

A new video made from the decade of data illustrates how blooms of phytoplankton, which form the base of the oceanic food chain, are gradually thinning. In the video, purples and blues indicate low concentrations of chlorophyll, which plants and phytoplankton use to gather light energy, whereas yellows, oranges and reds show the highest concentrations.

“Without SeaWiFS, any chance of producing data to assess climate change would not be possible," said Gene Feldman, SeaWiFS project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It’s the benchmark of long term, stable observations.”

Despite the simple benchmark of color, those observations have led to countless studies about how the world's changing climate continues to impact oceanic ecosystems.

"SeaWiFS allows us to observe ocean changes and the mechanisms linking ocean physics and biology," Feldman said. "And that's important for our ability to predict the future health of the oceans in a changing climate."

Project managers said the satellite data has also been used to set pollution standards, regulate water quality and design ways to sustain coastal economies reliant on tourism and fisheries.

Dave Mosher, currently the online director at Popular Science, writes about everything in the science and technology realm, including NASA's robotic spaceflight programs and wacky physics mysteries. He has written for several news outlets in addition to Live Science and, including:, National Geographic News, Scientific American, Simons Foundation and Discover Magazine. When not crafting science-y sentences, Dave dabbles in photography, bikes New York City streets, wrestles with his dog and runs science experiments with his nieces and nephews.