Do oceans absorb more CO2 than expected? Researchers think so

Posted: August 4, 2022 by oldbrew in Carbon cycle, modelling, research

The ocean carbon cycle [credit: IAEA]

“Based on our model calculations, we assume that current estimates of oceanic carbon uptake must be substantially corrected upwards”, said one researcher. A major revision, of ‘roughly 10% of our carbon budget’, is suggested. Phytoplankton hold the key.
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Phytoplankton need light and nutrients to grow. The microscopic algae rarely find both at the same time in sufficient quantities in the ocean. In the upper water layers, they usually lack nutrients, and further down, they lack light.

A new study led by the Helmholtz Center Hereon now says: Phytoplankton can migrate back and forth between deeper layers and the water surface.

If this were confirmed, it would have enormous consequences for the calculations of the natural carbon pump and thus for current calculations of the carbon budget.

The study’s results were published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Seas and the ocean are one of our largest carbon sinks. Every year, they absorb about 30% of the CO2 produced by humans and thereby remove it from the atmosphere.

This is mainly thanks to phytoplankton. With the help of light and nutrients, these microscopic plants take up the carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Until now, researchers assume that phytoplankton hardly move by themselves, but are driven along by currents. A study led by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon now presents arguments that question this assumption.

For this publication, which also involves GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel and the Earth SURFACE System Research Center, the team of authors analyzed numerous empirical research results. The conclusion: the measured data cannot be explained by the passive movement of phytoplankton. On this basis, the scientists developed a new model that includes the vertical migration of phytoplankton and can thus calculate the active “pumping up” of nutrients.

“Previous models treat phytoplankton as passive particles, while a lot of evidence suggests that it actively migrates to take up carbon in upper layers via photosynthesis and to store nutrients in lower layers,” says Kai Wirtz, lead author of the study and ecosystem modeler at the Hereon Institute of Coastal Systems, Analysis and Modeling.

The upper water layers of the seas and oceans almost always lack nutrients. Besides light, nutrients are vital for phytoplankton. Yet despite demonstrably lower nutrient concentrations, high rates of net primary production are measured there. The net primary production is the biomass produced by phytoplankton, which forms the basis of the marine food web. Other studies have been able to detect nitrogen from deeper water layers in phytoplankton near the water surface.

Phytoplankton traits, which have evolved over millions of years, also suggest more active migrations: At least two thirds of all species have been shown to be able to move actively. What is this capability good for, if the microorganisms are only passively drifting with currents?

The new study now presents this theory: phytoplankton actively move vertically between the upper and deeper water layers. This is how they get both—light in the upper layers and nutrients from greater water depth.

A constant up and down

The team around Kai Wirtz explains that although phytoplankton often swims or sinks only a few meters per day, it is able to bridge a depth of about 10 to 80 meters with the “energy reserve” from photosynthesis in the light-rich surface water. In greater water depth it can absorb enough nutrients until it actively moves towards the water surface again.

This movement cycle would correspond to an active carbon pump that works much more efficiently than previously assumed.

“Based on our model calculations, we assume that current estimates of oceanic carbon uptake must be substantially corrected upwards,” says Wirtz.
. . .
According to the calculations of the team of authors, which also includes Moritz Mathis from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon and Lan Smith from the Earth SURFACE System Research Center, by 2100 about 40 gigatons more CO2 per year would be absorbed than current climate models predict. This corresponds to sixty times the carbon emissions of Germany and thus roughly 10% of our carbon budget. That would significantly adjust the world’s climate account upward.

For this, however, it is necessary to know about essential processes, including the behavioral patterns of microorganisms. The verification of the new study’s theory could make a decisive contribution to this.

Full article here.

  1. […] Do oceans absorb more CO2 than expected? Researchers think so […]

  2. tallbloke says:

  3. Johna says:

    Earths energy is balanced, the last interglacial was hotter and the ice ages prove CO2 did not and could not drive these profound events. Planets with atmospheres also show the same heating event time line as Earth sees. The common denominator – the SUN and the laws of Physics. Recent research also proves the radiative IR heat transfer formed “greenhouse effect” (as currently defined by the UN) does not and cannot exist. Its all part of the control over us by the UN – and all countries who support and fund them.

  4. oldbrew says:

    This corresponds to sixty times the carbon emissions of Germany

    That lets them off the emissions hook then 😎

  5. Phoenix44 says:

    Seriously? We’ve known they have evolved movement for ages but haven’t bothered to wonder why?

  6. oldbrew says:

    Lead author Kai Wirtz published this in 2020:

    Vertical migration by bulk phytoplankton sustains biodiversity and nutrient input to the surface ocean

    Most phytoplankton species are commonly assumed to be incapable of moving actively between the zones of light and nutrient availability, which are separated vertically by from 30–120 m. Here we propose that a considerable fraction of phytoplankton vertically traverse these gradients over time scales from hours to weeks, employing variations of a common migration strategy to acquire multiple resources.

  7. catweazle666 says:

    The absorption of CO2 by the oceans – which the volume of which amounts to 321,003,271 cubic miles – is entirely governed by Henry’s law.
    That is why during the great lockdown when global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4%, or 2.3 billion tonnes in 2020, the Keeling Curve never so much as twitched.

    As more dissolved CO2 becomes available, the assorted oceanic flora and fauna simply utilise it.
    Multidecadal increase in North Atlantic coccolithophores and the potential role of rising CO2

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