Ocean’s ‘Biological Pump’ Captures Much More Carbon Than Expected

(CN) — An investigation into phytoplankton, life-giving oceanic organisms responsible for consuming harmful carbon dioxide, revealed Monday they are responsible for about twice as much capture of the greenhouse gas as once thought.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists found the powerhouse phytoplankton serves a greater role in maintaining the “biological carbon pump,” as plants and phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen via photosynthesis.

Carbon loss traditional measurement at 150 meters compared to carbon loss measurement considering depth of sunlight penetration. (Courtesy Ken Buesseler, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Geochemist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered that the depth of sunlit areas where photosynthesis occurs varies greatly in the ocean.

That variance in sunlit areas helped the researchers newly estimate that the amount of carbon that sinks into the ocean per year is double of previous estimates. When phytoplankton die or eaten by zooplankton, carbon-rich fragments sink deeper into the ocean where they are often consumed by other sea life or buried.

Buesseler and colleagues looked at previous data of the carbon pump, as well as conducting their own study. Instead of measuring at fixed depths, the research team used chlorophyll sensors that detect the presence of phytoplankton.

In examining and comparing results, they were able to discover just how efficient the ocean life is in maintaining Earth’s atmosphere.

“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 said in a statement.

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

The scientists said using this new method could help create more accurate climate models to help set global climate policy.

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