NOAA Database "COPEPOD" Helps World’s Researchers Study Ocean Plankton

What Are Plankton and Why Do They Matter?

Plankton are passively drifting organisms, microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton), that live in aquatic environments. Their low visibility, however, belies the critical function plankton play in ocean ecosystems and the attention they are getting from ocean and atmospheric scientists.

Much like a doctor will check a few key indicators (temperature, blood chemistry, etc.) to assess the overall health of a patient, ocean scientists are looking at plankton to assess the overall health of ocean ecosystems. Plankton are a vital link in ocean food webs and help transfer energy to larger organisms such as fish and whales. Most plankton are not actively harvested, so changes in their populations are often a signal that something else is happening in the environment. If plankton populations are changing or decreasing, this can mean commercially fished species or protected whales that depend on the plankton could be at risk.

Plankton are also a leading indicator for the environmental health of the planet. Although these organisms are tiny, they play a big role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and making it available as energy for marine life—a process called primary production. Almost half of global primary production occurs in the oceans and seas, of which 90 percent is attributed to photosynthetic plankton. Because plankton are linked to Earth’s carbon cycle, changes to plankton populations can be an indicator of climate change and the ocean’s response to changing environmental conditions. Since plankton play such critical ecological and environmental roles, researchers need to track their populations over time to better understand changes in ocean ecosystems.

 A Global Plankton Resource

To provide researchers with critical information on plankton, NOAA Fisheries created a unique database that provides global plankton data along with co-sampled environmental data. This resource is called the Coastal and Oceanic Plankton Ecology, Production, and Observation Database (COPEPOD).

Previously, an investigator would need to compile data from tens or even hundreds of different sources to study plankton abundance over an entire ocean or across the world. Once found, the data would be in different formats, scattered among numerous sources, or even in non-digital formats such as paper cruise reports. The investigator would then be faced with tedious conversion of the data into a usable format before analysis could begin. COPEPOD changes all that, allowing the investigator to spend time analyzing the data rather than compiling it.

Todd O’Brien, an oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries, developed COPEPOD to help bring together existing data sources and allow researchers to focus on their analysis, instead of data gathering and processing. He also created corresponding analysis and visualization tools (COPEPODITE and NAUPLIUS) to help researchers visualize data from different regions and better understand regional trends in plankton and environmental variables. COPEPOD’s data come from hundreds of institutional survey programs and projects, satellites, NOAA Fisheries (up to 60 years of plankton surveys), NOAA’s World Ocean Database (in-situ environmental data), and other core NOAA databases on bathymetry and atmospheric data.


"COPEPOD was developed cooperatively with the plankton research community, developing tools and data products to help them better pursue their key research questions."
– Todd O'Brien

Small Creatures, A Wealth of Information

COPEPOD celebrates its 10th anniversary this August. Over the past decade, many global sources have contributed to the COPEPOD database, and in return COPEPOD has contributed to many important oceanographic research efforts. COPEPOD provides essential information for scientists monitoring plankton trends in the North Atlantic to better understand climate and ecosystem changes. COPEPOD is also supporting a United Nations effort that is examining ecosystem-level changes throughout the world's oceans.

A Look to the Future

Plankton are linked to the carbon cycle and serve as the base to most ocean food webs. These organisms can also serve as indicators of how climate change and ocean acidification will affect the world’s ocean ecosystems in the future. By examining trends in plankton, researchers will be able to check the ocean’s vital signs in the years to come. Thanks to COPEPOD, researchers have a tool to help monitor these small but important sentinels of the sea.

Educator Resources



Figure 1: Map of zooplankton biomass (averaged over all seasons), found in the upper 200 meters of the ocean, represented as the amount of carbon (milligrams) in a cubic meter (m3) of seawater. This global map is comprised of over 100 standardized data sets and is one of COPEPOD’s most used data products.



Figure 2: Satellite image of chlorophyll, a measure of phytoplankton biomass, in the world’s oceans. The white stars represent the locations of known zooplankton time series, as featured in COPEPOD’s searchable directory of more than 300 marine ecological time series and surveys.