Ocean’s carbon budget balanced


Ocean scientists have, for the first time successfully balanced the supply of food to mid-water organisms with their demands for this food (Nature 2014, doi:10.1038/nature13123). The depth at which they consume this sinking material regulates our climate by determining how much carbon is stored by the ocean and how much remains in the atmosphere.


Marine copepods (photo courtesy of Daniel Mayor)

The results of the study in the North Atlantic are published in the journal Nature this week. The research focuses on ‘marine snow’ – bacteria, microscopic animals and sinking organic matter.
Dr Richard Sanders, Head of Ocean Biology and Ecosystems at the National Oceanography Centre explained: “Phytoplankton – marine plants – grow in the surface ocean using CO2 and sunlight to produce biomass in the same way that terrestrial plants do. This links atmospheric CO2 to the processes in the oceans and it is this ‘ocean carbon budget’ that we are keen to quantify.”

When phytoplankton die, they sink to depth and transport atmospheric CO2 into the deep ocean. Massive quantities of CO2 are stored in the deep ocean this way, keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations much lower than if the oceans were devoid of life. 


Deployment of PELAGRA sediment trap (photo courtesy of NOC)

“When predicting future atmospheric CO2 levels, it is important to understand how much marine snow is sinking to depth and where it is being consumed.”

Most of the food supplied to the deep sea sinks from the upper ocean in the form of marine snow, flakes of marine detritus – dead plant and animal plankton and plankton faeces. Animals living in the ‘twilight zone’, a layer between 50–1000 metres depth where light levels are extremely low, eat most of this marine snow.

Previous attempts to explain the loss of marine snow with biological activity in the twilight zone have failed, suggesting that the understanding of the processes within the ocean was incomplete.
“We show that a balance between food supply and demand is possible because of intricate linkages between zooplankton and microbes,” explained lead author Dr Sarah Giering. “When these microscopic animals eat marine snow, much of it is released as tiny suspended particles that are readily available to bacteria, which in turn convert it into biomass and CO2.”

Dr Daniel Mayor from the University of Aberdeen, a co-author of the research, said: “The apparently wasteful process of zooplankton fragmenting, rather than ingesting, sinking detritus is central to understanding how the twilight zone works.

“CO2 released at depth can stay there for thousands of year, providing a natural mechanism for carbon storage.”

“This release is important, because marine snow is made of phytoplankton, microscopic plants that take up atmospheric CO2,” continued Dr Giering.

“Our findings are a major step forward, allowing us to explore the role of deep-sea biota regulating our climate,” said Dr Sarah Giering.

The field studies took place in 2009 in the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the North Atlantic. During the expedition the scientist ran a Classroom@Sea blog http://www.classroomatsea.net/D341/diary/10-07-2009.html detailing daily research activities.


Notes to Editors
'Reconciliation of the carbon budget in the ocean's twilight zone' published Advance Online Publications 19th March 2014.  www.nature.com

Authors Sarah Giering, Richard Sanders, Richard Lampitt, Thomas Anderson, Christian Tamburini, LMehdi Boutrif, Mikhail Zubkov, Chris Marsay, Stephanie Henson, Kevin Saw, Kathryn Cook, Daniel Mayor

For more information contact NOC Head of Communications, Lucy Calvert 023 8059 8490 lucy.calvert@noc.ac.uk and Dr Richard Sanders 023 8059 6014 rics@noc.ac.uk
NOC has a studio with an ISDN line for radio interviews.

The National Oceanography Centre (NOC)
is the UK’s leading institution for integrated coastal and deep ocean research. NOC undertakes and facilitates world-class agenda-setting scientific research to understand the global ocean by solving challenging multidisciplinary, large scale, long-term marine science problems to underpin international and UK public policy, business and wider society outcomes. 

NOC operates the Royal Research Ships James Cook and Discovery and develops technology for coastal and deep ocean research. Working with its partners NOC provides long-term marine science capability including: sustained ocean observing, mapping and surveying; data management and scientific advice.

NOC operates at two sites, Southampton and Liverpool, with the headquarters based in Southampton.

Among the resources that NOC provides on behalf of the UK are the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC), the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility, the National Tide and Sea Level Facility (NTSLF), the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) and British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility (BOSCORF)

The National Oceanography Centre is wholly owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

 

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