Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Marine carbon sinking rates confirm importance of polar oceans

26.07.2016

About the same amount of atmospheric carbon that goes into creating plants on land goes into the bodies of tiny marine plants known as plankton. When these plants die and sink, bacteria feed on their sinking corpses and return their carbon to the seawater. When plankton sink deep enough before being eaten, this carbon is taken out of circulation as a greenhouse gas to remain trapped in the deep ocean for centuries.


Results show that the transfer efficiency of organic carbon from the surface to the deep ocean ranges from just 5 percent in the subtropics to around 25 percent near the poles.

Credit: Thomas Weber/University of Washington

How much of this happens in different regions of the ocean would seem like an academic question, except during an era when humanity is spewing carbon dioxide into the air at record-high levels and wondering where all that carbon will go in the future.

A University of Washington study published this week (July 25) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses a new approach to get a global picture of the fate of marine carbon. It finds that the polar seas export organic carbon to the deep sea, where it can no longer trap heat from the sun, about five times as efficiently as in other parts of the ocean.

"The high latitudes are much more efficient at transferring carbon into the deep ocean," said first author Thomas Weber, who did the work as a postdoctoral researcher at the UW and is now an assistant professor at the University of Rochester in New York. "Understanding how this happens will certainly allow a more complete prediction of ocean responses to climate change."

The planet has many carbon sinks, or routes that transfer heat-trapping carbon from the atmosphere into other parts of the Earth system. This sink is a literal one. Carbon-rich plankton detritus clumps together to form marine snow that drifts down through the water and provides food for deeper-dwelling organisms. The continual supply of organic carbon in particles from the surface to the deep sea is known as the "biological pump."

This pump had been thought to operate at similar strength throughout the oceans, but the new study finds a strong regional pattern. The authors find that about 25 percent of organic particles sinking from the surface in the polar oceans reach at least 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) -- the depth required for long-term storage in deep waters or the seafloor. Just 5 percent of sinking carbon in the subtropics makes it that far, while the rest is released into shallower water where it can soon rejoin the atmosphere. The tropics have an intermediate value of about 15 percent.

"This highlights the importance of the polar ocean -- the cold, high-latitude parts of the ocean -- for their ability to store carbon over long time periods," said co-author Curtis Deutsch, a UW associate professor of oceanography.

The growth of marine plants at the ocean's sunlit surface is well-studied, but what happens a mile down is more mysterious. For many years, scientists have put floating sediment traps at different depths to try to learn how deep the particles reach, but the results have been inconclusive. "It's obviously quite expensive to deploy these traps on a scale that you would need to make global estimates," Weber said. The new study takes a different approach. Researchers looked at phosphate, a nutrient taken in by plankton in the surface and released with carbon when particles decompose. They then used a computer model of ocean currents to determine the depth at which this nutrient is released.

"By looking at the products of the decomposition we could look at it in the opposite way but come to the same information, which is how deep stuff gets before it decomposes," Deutsch said.

They found that, overall, about 15 percent of the carbon in ocean plankton makes it to long-term storage in the deep ocean, which agrees with previous estimates. But the regional pattern came as a surprise.

The authors tried to understand why. Temperature could be a factor, since cold water, like refrigerators, will slow decomposition on the way down. But the temperature difference could not fully explain the results.

What did explain a range of observations was the size of the organisms that form marine snow. Warm, nutrient-poor subtropical seas are so-called "marine deserts" where the life that survives is made up of tiny picoplankton. Nutrient-rich polar oceans, and to a lesser degree the equator, can support larger lifeforms, such as diatoms, that sink more like a proverbial stone.

"Simply because they sink faster, these large phytoplankton are more likely to reach the deep ocean before being consumed," Weber said.

Under climate change, oceans are predicted to support fewer plankton overall. What's more, it's thought that water temperatures will rise, currents will slow and the tropics will expand.

"Even though this study is not directly about climate change, it provides us with a new way of thinking to apply to climate-change scenarios," Weber said. "As those regions dominated by smaller plankton tend to expand, it's likely that the ocean will become less efficient at locking carbon away from the atmosphere."

###

The research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Other co-authors are UW oceanography postdoctoral researcher Jacob Cram and graduate student Shirley Leung, and Timothy DeVries at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

For more information, contact Weber at t.weber@rochester.edu or 585-275-2103 and Deutsch at cdeutsch@uw.edu or 206-543-5189.

Media Contact

Hannah Hickey
hickeyh@uw.edu
206-543-2580

 @UW

http://www.washington.edu/news/ 

Hannah Hickey | EurekAlert!

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Live from the ocean research vessel Atlantis
13.12.2018 | National Science Foundation

nachricht NSF-supported scientists present new research results on Earth's critical zone
13.12.2018 | National Science Foundation

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

The more objects we make "smart," from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.

Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved...

Im Focus: An energy-efficient way to stay warm: Sew high-tech heating patches to your clothes

Personal patches could reduce energy waste in buildings, Rutgers-led study says

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...

Im Focus: Lethal combination: Drug cocktail turns off the juice to cancer cells

A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.

The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...

Im Focus: New Foldable Drone Flies through Narrow Holes in Rescue Missions

A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.

Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...

Im Focus: Topological material switched off and on for the first time

Key advance for future topological transistors

Over the last decade, there has been much excitement about the discovery, recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics only two years ago, that there are two types...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

New Plastics Economy Investor Forum - Meeting Point for Innovations

10.12.2018 | Event News

EGU 2019 meeting: Media registration now open

06.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

14.12.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Tangled magnetic fields power cosmic particle accelerators

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

In search of missing worlds, Hubble finds a fast evaporating exoplanet

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>