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Ocean's Ability to Capture Atmospheric Carbon "Drastically Underestimated", Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Study Finds

9th April 2020
Marine chemist Ken Buesseler (right) deploys a sediment trap from the research vessel Roger Revelle during a 2018 expedition in the Gulf of Alaska. Buesseler's research focuses on how carbon moves through the ocean. Buesseler and co-authors of a new study found that the ocean's biological carbon pump may be twice as efficient as previously estimated, with implications for future climate assessments. Marine chemist Ken Buesseler (right) deploys a sediment trap from the research vessel Roger Revelle during a 2018 expedition in the Gulf of Alaska. Buesseler's research focuses on how carbon moves through the ocean. Buesseler and co-authors of a new study found that the ocean's biological carbon pump may be twice as efficient as previously estimated, with implications for future climate assessments. Photo: courtesy Alyssa Santoro/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The ocean’s biological “carbon pump” has been “drastically underestimated in its ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere, a new study has found writes Lorna Siggins

Scientists with the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have found that the depth of the sunlit area where photosynthesis takes place varies significantly throughout the ocean.

A paper published by WHOI geochemist Ken Buesseler in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains that this matters because the phytoplankton’s ability to take up carbon depends on the amount of sunlight that’s able to penetrate the ocean’s upper layer.

By taking account of the depth of the “euphotic”, or sunlit zone, and his fellow authors found that about twice as much carbon sinks into the ocean per year than previously estimated.

The paper relies on previous studies of the carbon pump, including his own.

“Is the amount of carbon sinking in the ocean going up or down?"

“If you look at the same data in a new way, you get a very different view of the ocean’s role in processing carbon, hence its role in regulating climate,” Buesseler has said.

“Using the new metrics, we will be able to refine the models to not just tell us how the ocean looks today, but how it will look in the future,” he says.

“Is the amount of carbon sinking in the ocean going up or down? That number affects the climate of the world we live in.”

Buesseler and his co-authors call on their fellow oceanographers to consider their data in context of the actual boundary of the euphotic zone.

“If we’re going to call something a euphotic zone, we need to define that,” he says. “So we’re insisting on a more formal definition so that we can compare sites.”

Rather than taking measurements at fixed depths, the authors used chlorophyll sensors —indicating the presence of phytoplankton— to rapidly assess the depth of the sunlit region. They also suggest using the signature from a naturally-occuring thorium isotope to estimate the rate at which carbon particles are sinking.

Buesseler is a principal investigator with WHOI’s Ocean Twilight Zone project, which focuses on what he calls the “little-understood but vastly important mid-ocean region”.

Buesseler and colleagues have already called on the international marine research community to intensify studies of the twilight zone during the upcoming United Nations Decade of the Ocean (2021-2030).

Increased understanding of the twilight zone ecosystem and its role in regulating climate will lead to global policy to protect the area from exploitation, he and his colleagues state.

Co-authors of the paper include: Phillip Boyd of University of Tasmania, Australia; Erin Black of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, and Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, New York; and David Siegel, University of California, Santa Barbara.

This work was funded by WHOI’s Ocean Twilight Zone project; NASA; the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University; and the Australian Research Council.

Published in Marine Science
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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