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Bioluminescence as never seen before: satellites have detected events of up to 100,000 square kilometers

Bioluminescence is a phenomenon as precious as it is mysterious, but it has even been taken into account as a resource for street lighting (at least the idea of). But what has recently surprised that bioluminescence manifestations become very massive and long-lasting, something for which certain satellites have been key.

This term refers to the ability of some organisms to produce light in their metabolism, with the usual participation of an enzyme called luciferase. This direct conversion of chemical energy to light occurs in many species of fungi, bacteria, jellyfish, insects, protists and other families of living beings, hence the sea is a place to see it, but what these researchers report are massive shows whose area would exceed that of a small country.

Natural fluorescences larger than countries like Lithuania

Reported by Steven D. Miller and his team was published in Nature. The most striking specifically was detected specifically in southern Java in 2019, but analyzed satellite images from December 2012 to March 2021.

During this period of time, they counted a dozen massive bioluminescence events, about one every eight months. As explained in the New York Times, even the smallest was one hundred times bigger than all of Manhattan, which is many football fields (about 8,300, if we take the area of ​​59.1 km² for the district as a reference).

The largest they have detected reaches the 100.000 km², specifically those found in the vicinity of the island of Java. To get an idea, the area of ​​Lithuania or Ireland is, respectively, about 65,300 km² and 70,273 km².

Bioluminescence Java Day Night

Day and night comparison of the “milky spot” (the white silhouette in the night photos, below, is a manifestation of bioluminescence) under the island of Java. About 100,000 km² of surface in this case. Bright patches seen over Java in (d – f) are city lights. Image: Steven D. Miller et al

As they explain, these sightings have been possible thanks to the technologies that observation satellites have gradually incorporated (such as those based on infrared), specifically speaking of those that the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) launched in 2011 and 2017. Miller explains that, although they had been wanting to see if the illuminations were seen via satellite for a longer time (at least since 2004), what they were getting were images that were too noisy and not usable, until the equipment was improved later.

How to photograph the Milky Way and marine bioluminescence from a merchant ship, by Santiago Olay

The hope with this discovery, which is also very attractive on a photographic level, is better understand the origin of bioluminescence. Just as characteristics are known and it is something that has been observed for centuries, it continues to theorize about its origin in works such as that of William McElroy and Howard Seliger (from a few decades ago) that places it in an adaptation strategy in the face of the increase in the oxygen concentration after the massive emergence of cyanobacteria on Earth about 2.45 billion years ago.

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One of the massive events (about 9,000 km² in area) near Arabia, in 2013. Image: Steven D. Miller et al

What they point out is that, although bioluminescence is normally associated with creatures that live in the deepest areas (such as lophiiformes, those fish with a frontal LED-like appendix with a somewhat terrifying appearance), what they have identified in this study is that these giant fluorescent areas come rather from plankton or billions of bacteria, which light up at the same time.

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Bioluminescence manifestations are often “hunted” by avid photographers like Cameron on wave crest.

Another surprising fact, in addition to the extent of these surface events, is the duration of the same. Speaking of that huge “flash” seen in Java in 2019 that we mentioned earlier, it manifested itself for about 45 nights.

This raises hopes for scientists interested in this field, beyond the data that the study has provided. With a duration like that of that case, sampling could be possible even if there was no immediate team nearby.

We will see if it is finally as useful as they hope when it comes to having more information about this surprising consequence of the metabolism of living beings that we listed. At least now they have already detected the way to hunt down these demonstrations, even if it is thanks to instruments that observe us from thousands of kilometers.

Imagen | Jesse Richmond