Had William Shakespeare had a chance to peruse a new study, he might have praised nitrate for the dizzying view from atop the White Cliffs of Dover. That’s because the tiny algae, known as coccolithophores, which helped form the famous cliffs some 100 million years ago benefited from a specific recipe of nutrients—specifically high concentrations of nitrate, per a release. While examining coccolithophores and competitors known as diatoms in the “Great Calcite Belt” around Antarctica, researchers found that lots of iron and silicate in water benefit diatoms, which keep coccolithophores from ballooning to numbers that make the Cliffs of Dover possible. But when nitrate levels are high and iron levels low, coccolithophores thrive.
Only under such conditions could tiny coccolithophores, each about ten-thousandth of an inch wide, be forced together to reach heights of 350 feet, researchers explain in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, per the Washington Post. But perhaps the coolest thing researchers discovered is that such conditions are occurring today in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, reports Live Science. "While we don't have the great cliffs of the Southern Ocean, there is solid evidence that the calcite is making it to the seafloor," the lead author says. That means in millions of years, white chalk cliffs like those in Dover could be found elsewhere. That's good news, notes Gizmodo, since Dover's cliffs will have been washed away by then. (This toxic algae makes the sea sparkle.)