We've all seen the incredible pictures of bioluminescent beaches that are lit up at night by plankton. Well, Colorado State University researchers are so close to uncovering even more of the phenomen behind oceanic bioluminescence.

Given the name "milky seas", these waters are a form of marine bioluminescence that is extremely rare and happens when the ocean appears to have a widespread whitish glow. According to an article with Scientific Reports, researchers have found this mostly in waters in the northwest Indian Ocean and the Maritime Continent.

Credit: "Honing in on bioluminescent milky seas from space", Scientifc Report

There is little known about what role they play in the ecosystem and what makes up the phenomenon. What is known, however, is that it is the largest known form of bioluminescent display on our planet. The glow can last for several nights and can take up the square mileage about the size of the state of Kentucky.

The report from CSU says the  "milky seas" are comparable to a snow field or bed of clouds. The waters are so miraculous and surreal that they made their way into novels like Moby Dick and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. They fit so well into these books because, before scientific observation really looked into them, they seemed like fables and folklore.

Until, according to the release from CSU, back in 1985, the one known research vessel to sail through the glowing waters collected a sample suggesting the cause was a luminous bacteria that had colonized algae found on the water's surface. However, not all the features of the phenomenon are explained by this hypothesis from the 80s.

Now, with the bolstered observations from space, researchers now have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the bioluminescent water. CSU researchers constantly analyze date from "the Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 satellites [that] collect imagery using a sophisticated suite of sensors".

These sensors include something called the "Day/Night Band" instrument. This tool detects faint amounts of visible light at night, meaning it can see city lights through the dark of night, flames of fires and now, milky seas.

Credit: "Honing in on bioluminescent milky seas from space", Scientific Report article, satellite images
Credit: "Honing in on bioluminescent milky seas from space", Scientific Report article, satellite images

Steve Miller, CIRA's incoming director and lead author on the aforementioned Scientific Reports paper, says he and his team located 12 occurences of the "milky seas" phenomen between 2012 and 2021.

So much goes into making sure the observations are accurate, and even so much as a glow from moonlight across the ocean surface can skew observations. Through their research, they were able to use satellites to predict and avoid any variable in order to rule out other sources of light emission.

Miller and the rest of the research team have developed new hypotheses for the unique conditions surrounding the formation of this glowing phenomenon. Miller said:

Milky seas are simply marvelous expressions of our biosphere whose significance in nature we have not yet fathomed [...] The Day/Night Band has lit yet another pathway to scientific discovery.

And CSU researchers are at the point of that charge toward breakthrough scientific truth.

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