In April 2010, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull spewed great ash clouds into the sky and caused enormous disruptions to air travel in Europe. The eruptions are best remembered for this inconvenience, but photographer James Appleton managed to capture the event in a different way. In the weeks before the disturbances, a vulcanologist friend of his alerted him to the unfolding volcanic drama, and Appleton travelled straight to the Icelandic mountain before it was closed off. Risking his life to battle extreme cold, high winds, and seismic activity, Appleton captured a rare but gorgeous scene: the glowing lava from an Eyjafjallajökull fissure with the Northern Lights—Aurora Borealis—overhead. These are two very different light sources, so “the photograph needed parts of the scene selectively blocked for sections of the exposure to balance the contrast,” Appleton recalls. “A Mars bar wrapper came in handy for this!”
The biological light, or bioluminescence, in the waves is the product of marine microbes called phytoplankton—and now scientists think they know how some of these life-forms create their brilliant blue glow.
The most common type of marine bioluminescence is generated by phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates. A recent study co-authored by Hastings has for the first time identified a special channel in the dinoflagellate cell membrane that responds to electrical signals—offering a potential mechanism for how the algae create their unique illumination.