Changing Planet

“Sea Snot” Explosions Feed Deep-Sea Creatures

It’s a feast of epic proportions. Storms of “sea snot”—a mix of dead plankton and gelatinous sea creatures, and their feces—drift to the ocean floor, where deep-sea organisms gobble up the sudden windfall.

But these snotty blizzards aren’t just an occasional bonus to life at the bottom of the ocean—new research shows they depend on it to stay alive.

“Sea snot” seen in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Image courtesy Arne Diercks

The scientists found that not long after sea snot blooms drift to the seafloor, the activity of these deep-sea critters accelerated. (See “Giant, Mucus-Like Sea Blobs on the Rise, Pose Danger.”)

Global warming and ocean acidification, however, may be increasing the frequency of these sea snot storms, which could have unforeseen effects on marine life by altering how nutrients move around the oceans.

“In the 24 years of this study, the past 2 years have been the biggest amounts of this detritus by far,”  said study leader Christine Huffard, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Marine Banquet

With lead author Ken Smith, Huffard and colleagues were interested in learning how deep-sea marine life uses carbon and other elements, so they turned to Station M, which is located 145 miles (220 kilometers) west of the coast of California (map) between Santa Barbara and Monterey.

Although it sounds more like a secret CIA hideout than an ocean-research area, Station M has been giving scientists data on ocean productivity for two decades.

The ocean is most productive at the surface, where algae and phytoplankton use the sun’s energy to photosynthesize, creating a large portion of our atmosphere’s oxygen. Other animals, like slimy sea salps—barrel-shaped, jellyfish-like organisms—feed on the phytoplankton. (Related: “Huge Swarm of Gelatinous Sea Creatures Imaged in 3-D.”)

Somewhat regularly, large blooms of phytoplankton cover large areas of the ocean’s surface, which in turn boosts populations of sea salps that gorge on the giant marine banquet.

Eventually, however, all good things come to an end. The phytoplankton eventually dies off, and so do the hordes of sea salps.

“Anything that was once living or breathing or had been eaten at the surface makes its way to the bottom of the ocean,” Huffard said. “The sea salps sink pretty quickly because they’re very dense, but even fecal pellets from zooplankton fall to the seafloor.” (See pictures of deep-sea creatures.)

Tracking Oxygen

All of this feasting—and the digesting that follows—requires significant amounts of oxygen. So, using a special deep-sea robot, Huffard and colleagues measured the oxygen used by this deep sea life and the subsequent carbon it produces (as proteins and cells) to determine its activity level.

Their data revealed small seasonal increases in the activity of deep-sea organisms after spring and fall phytoplankton blooms.

Huffard points out that the use of oxygen and carbon levels to measure deep-sea productivity does have limitations.

Perhaps the biggest one is that the method can’t tell whether the number of deep-sea organisms has increased, or if they’re just more active and thus producing more carbon.

Mysterious Explosions

Global warming may also be influencing the rhythm of sea snot explosions. For instance, warmer oceans may encourage the growth of more phytoplankton. The scientists observed the largest spikes in deep-sea productivity in 2011 and 2012, corresponding with massive phytoplankton blooms. (Also see “‘Sea Snot’ Explosion Caused by Gulf Oil Spill?”)

In March 2012, less than one percent of the seafloor beneath Station M was covered in dead sea salps. By July 1, more than 98 percent of it was covered in the decomposing organisms, according to the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The major increase in activity of deep-sea life in 2011 and 2012 weren’t limited to Station M, though: Other ocean-research stations reported similar data.

Although climate change is a leading contender for explaining the major increases in 2011 and 2012, Huffard says that these spikes could be part of a longer-term trend that scientists haven’t yet observed.

She hopes to continue gathering data from Station M to try and figure it out.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter and Google+.

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at
  • George m cabeen

    I imagine that we will soon find that the ocean’s and these”intricate mechanisms”are the earths way of correcting for our mistakes

  • Fin Leavell

    Hello! Just perusing the article. I agree that global warming is taking place however I strongly disagree that this has anything to do with global warming.

    This study constitutes about 0.000000004 percent of the Earth’s age.

    No wonder there is such a large debate about whether global warming exists… every scientist is calling “wolf” at every change in data.

    Get the reality to the masses so action can occur.

  • Nickolas

    This global warming garbage is nothing but fraud. This is probably more to do with the pollution and radiation from Fukushima that all you “journalists” if there was such a thing today keep ignoring. Trying to further the global warming myth while not saying anything about the real problem shows you don’t really care about the environment only an agenda. This goes for all of you. Climate change has always happened this is normal. While I am against polluting because it is toxic the temperature is of little affect by man. The real question is why are they ignoring a nuclear catastrophe? What is there to gain? This is the real problem.

  • Bruce Allan

    Yes, I’m just wondering, when will “Global warming” be subject to scientific “peer review” and not the assumption of the junk science peddlers?

  • Doug Blair

    Uh, climate change undergoes peer review.

  • Guessagain

    If you read the headlines on the highly recommended site called ENENEWS dot com, you will see how many recent examples there are of sick sea life; from seals, to walruses, to whales, etc.

    All of these have occurred since Japan’s nuclear meltdowns of March 2011.

    Scientists reported that 80% of the radiation from Japan’s nuclear meltdowns went into the Pacific Ocean.

    Common sense would tell you that this must be having some affect on sea life.

    Here’s an animated plume map showing where radiation from Japan’s meltdowns went:


  • Chris

    This would seem to be a more serious topic than what this forum has allotted for it. Weird and wild with the headline about “Sea Snot” will no doubt get an eww gross from the children but the information is alarming.

    It appears the Pacific ocean is quite sick considering “In March 2012, less than one percent of the seafloor beneath Station M was covered in dead sea salps. By July 1, more than 98 percent of it was covered in the decomposing organisms” and this is not isolated but a trend at other research stations.

    Please continue to update with the latest info you receive on this disturbing situation and please refrain from joking about the ocean having a snotty nose when data appears to indicate something more serious.

  • walt stawicki

    some freeze up and have to ignore fubarshima. others can’t face the chaos of our climate they think it will self regulate. they never heard about “small input change huge output change”. they think there is a god ordained equillibrium. one where we can survive.

  • Grammy

    Forget looking at global warming as the culprit. The dates coincide with the Fukushima disaster…radiation is the culprit!

  • Johhny Come Lately

    So, a media outlet such as National Geographic releases a report that in March, 2012 there was only 1% decomposing, Dead Sea Salps and a mere four months later there was 98% and your reporting wants to state it correlates to ” global warming” as the culprit? What? the earth took a such a huge hit in a four month time frame of a meltdown via global warming and we as a people didn’t recognize this while happenning; while coincidently during that same time frame the event at Fukashima took place? What’s the agenda here for you to even report such nonsense? Collecting data to see how many fools in America blindly accept such a lie? Wake up people, get your face out of American Idol and start researching the effects these lies they are compounding on the American people have on us and the the affect they are going to have on your children and grandchildren! “The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe!”

  • Doug

    Their unable to culture the baffling virus because it acts so quickly they just can’t getter done. Many moons ago it worked really well to dump a dead cow up stream and wait for the majority to become ill and the rape pillage plunder begins. But the thing is we’re not like that anymore. We have much cleverer means in which to screw our neighbour . If fukushima did blow it top then all of our prior knowledge regarding fallout etc should certainly be raising a little more questioning by our entire society. What is with everyone? Well I feel we will all get exactly what we’ve been asking for. Expect no mercy. Were all guilty of turning a blind eye, And that includes you.I am not racist in the very least! I simply don’t trust anyone today. Things should be getting a lot crazier soon, EXTRACT thy head from thy BOTTOM!!!!

  • pissedman

    If you want to be taken seriously in the future you need to find the real root cause. Take out a geiger counter and take some readings. This corresponds to Fukishima radiation and high radiation readings throughout the Northern pacific the last year! Nothing else could make such dramatic results! BTW the salty ocean could NEVER be acidic. I know you don’t want to scare anyone, but if you speculate and are incorrect, it wastes a bunch of time and efforts on something we cannot help or control. If radiation is the problem, then maybe the world will get together to really work on this. Russia and others have offered to help, maybe they will take it if we push Japan to get serious about this issue?

  • suzette coates

    I see Sci Fi type sea monsters in the near future.

  • AuntyKeli

    F U K U S HI M A !

    Is it really that difficult for the scientific community to figure out and main stream media to report?

    All the rest of us know so why cant they figure it out?

  • Gary

    I know it’s just causality but couldn’t somebody please check the radiation levels of the “snot” and see if there is evidence of radiation poisoning? At least just check? As for “OH MY GOD! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” global warming, some say the warmer oceans are helping these animals to flourish and that’s why there so much goop on the ocean floor – and then some say the warming oceans are killing the creatures. Both of these theories come from the AGW crowd, so which is it? Doesn’t sound like there’s a consensus on this particular issue yet. So why not, please oh please, just look into the radioactive dumping going on in Japan, see if it could be the cause. Please? Just check and see? Please?

  • Raf McCaw

    What is it about a scientific survey that has people so willing to put aside their intelligence and actually read enough to understand what is being said? These are naturally occurring blooms of planketon, which as the study states clearly happen regularly. That they are short and die and descend to the ocean floor is as surprising as the May explosion of flying ants or the eventual demise of a swarm of locusts. Where these happen often and are close to observable coatslines, these are called Red Tides and are severe enough to deplete the oxygen levels locally enough to suffocate large quantities of fish, which float to the surface before descending to the sea floor. The warmer the ocean the more often these blooms occur. (Think summer v winter here). To willingly ignore the study and try to pin this on Fukashima only fuels the non scientific and ignorant and belittles the seriousness of either concern (warming and pollution) into one of believers and non believers and never the twain shall be allowed adult discussion.

  • francesco

    Everyone that say positive word on nuclear energy must die!
    They have to go living near Fukushima, now! everybody! If they beleive in theirself will bring their sons with them!
    Stop bla,bla,bla……next politician that support nuclear energy… shot, one kill!

  • Jack Gabel

    Raf McCaw’s level-headed contribution is welcome. Still waiting for the answer to this question: How is the Fukushima event more severe than the Castle Bravo shot?

    Castle Bravo was only one of the ca. 3k atmospheric nuclear tests between 1946 & 1992. It was the largest (15 MT) atmospheric nuclear test ever in the Pacific (March 1, 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands). There were fallout deaths in its wake. Effects on the local Marshall Islanders and a nearby Japanese fishing vessel is well-documented. Extended radioactive contamination was sever – details here – Nevertheless, the Pacific Ocean did not die from it, nor from the thousands of other atmospheric tests in the Pacific and will likely neither from Fukushima.

    Please do not conflate this with approval of nuclear weapons or nuclear fission power generation. Aneutronic fusion is the safe route to nuclear power – a whole other issue. This is offered as a follow up to Raf McCaw’s posting. TPTB should be held accountable and made to be responsible, but approaching efforts to do so like ill-informed religious zealots undermines all environmental causes.

  • captain obvious

    Let me get this straight. Between March and July 2012, the seafloor off the coast of California increased from 98% and you’re saying climate change is the leading contender but don’t even mention Fukushima? It’s crap articles like this that turn me off from reading what I thought was decent publication.

  • Kyle H. Davis

    Jack Gabel – I mean this with the utmost politeness.

    While I don’t support any “Chicken Little science”, whether its global warming (a cycle that has been going on since the formation of earth) or undocumented effects of Fukushima, I want to at least answer your question.

    The difference between Fukushima and the atomic testing in the Pacific is as different as apples and oranges. First, as you pointed out, these tests were atmospheric. And while it may be said that everything that goes up, must come down, in a nuclear blast, not everything comes down in the same place: Point 1 – not as concentrated as dumping a million tons of concentrated radioactive waste directly into the ocean.

    And then there is the issue of how much, and what type of radioactive material we are talking about. Almost a million tons (not gallons, TONS) of radioactive water was released into the ocean.

    A nuclear bomb is designed to have every bit of destructive power of its nuclear material to be unleashed in a destructive blast. A nuclear power plant is designed to minimize any destructive power of nuclear material, and harness it for power. The amount of nuclear material used in a nuclear weapon, compared to the amount of nuclear material held in power plants, is miniscule.

    To compare the two is like comparing holding a lighter in front of a can of WD40 and spraying it above over your back yard, on a windy day, and saying “Well, if it didn’t contaminate the ground water, then why should the hole in the 100 gallon underground oil tank?”

  • Andy

    For the most part, everything is speculative. They dont have another planet to destroy in order to be sure of anything. Most of the info on this accident is hard to digest and understand, theres alot of background reading to even get a glimpse at the scope of fukushima. Is there any way to say for sure the snot increase is from fukushima? NO. And other possible causes are only guesses as well. That our climate/enviorment is changing is for sure, but that its man made, or any one element driven, doubt it. Way beyond the scope of what man knows.

    With the release numbers coming out on fukushima, all of the modeling would have to be redone for 5-10 times the release reported/believed to be. Then compound it by making it a continual release on a rather large scale. Kiss your love ones and love your time with them as they are today. Today for sure isnt like yesterday, and im pretty sure its gonna change for tomorrow.

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