Honing in on bioluminescent milky seas from space

Sci Rep. 2021 Jul 29;11(1):15443. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-94823-z.


Milky seas are a rare form of marine bioluminescence where the nocturnal ocean surface produces a widespread, uniform and steady whitish glow. Mariners have compared their appearance to a daylit snowfield that extends to all horizons. Encountered most often in remote waters of the northwest Indian Ocean and the Maritime Continent, milky seas have eluded rigorous scientific inquiry, and thus little is known about their composition, formation mechanism, and role within the marine ecosystem. The Day/Night Band (DNB), a new-generation spaceborne low-light imager, holds potential to detect milky seas, but the capability has yet to be demonstrated. Here, we show initial examples of DNB-detected milky seas based on a multi-year (2012-2021) search. The massive bodies of glowing ocean, sometimes exceeding 100,000 km2 in size, persist for days to weeks, drift within doldrums amidst the prevailing sea surface currents, and align with narrow ranges of sea surface temperature and biomass in a way that suggests water mass isolation. These findings show how spaceborne assets can now help guide research vessels toward active milky seas to learn more about them.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't