Document Type


Publication Date




Publication Title

Limnology and Oceanography








Using field measurements and quantitative modeling, we demonstrate that red coloration of the sea surface is not associated with any particular group of phytoplankton and is strongly dependent on the physiology of the human visual system. Red or brown surface waters can be produced by high concentrations of most types of algae, colored dissolved organic matter, or suspended sediment. Even though light reflected by red tides commonly peaks in the yellow spectral region (570–580 nm), human color perception requires consideration of the entire spectrum of light relative to receptors within the human eye. The color shift from green to red is not due to any special optical properties of the algae but results from an overlap in spectral response of the eye’s red and green cones (centered at 564 and 534 nm, respectively). The spectral peak in light reflected from dense algal blooms coincides with a critical hinge point in color vision (570–580 nm), where fine-scale shifts in the spectral shape of water-leaving radiance due to algal absorption and backscattering properties lead to pronounced variations in the observed color. Of the taxa considered, only Chlorophytes and Prochlorophytes lacked sufficient accessory pigments to produce a red tide. Chlorophyll fluorescence and enhanced near-infrared reflectance (the ‘‘red edge’’) contribute negligibly to the perceived color. Black water events are produced when water is highly absorbing but lacks backscattering constituents.

Original Publication Citation

Dierssen, H.M., Kudela, R.M., Ryan, J.P., & Zimmerman, R.C. (2006). Red and black tides: Quantitative analysis of water-leaving radiance and perceived color for phytoplankton, colored dissolved organic matter, and suspended sediments. Limnology and Oceanography, 51(6), 2646-2659. doi: 10.4319/lo.2006.51.6.2646