Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ocean food web key in global carbon cycle

Julie Cohen in the UC Santa Barbara Current: Nothing dies of old age in the ocean. Everything gets eaten and all that remains of anything is waste. But that waste is pure gold to oceanographer David Siegel, director of the Earth Research Institute at UC Santa Barbara.

In a study of the ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle, Siegel and his colleagues used those nuggets to their advantage. They incorporated the lifecycle of phytoplankton and zooplankton — small, often microscopic animals at the bottom of the food chain — into a novel mechanistic model for assessing the global ocean carbon export. Their findings appear online in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

The researchers used satellite observations including determinations of net primary production (NPP) — the net production of organic matter from aqueous carbon dioxide (CO2) by phytoplankton — to drive their food-web-based model. The scientists focused on the ocean’s biological pump, which exports organic carbon from the euphotic zone — the well-lit, upper ocean — through sinking particulate matter, largely from zooplankton feces and aggregates of algae. Once these leave the euphotic zone, sinking into the ocean depths, the carbon can be sequestered for a season or for centuries.

“What we’ve done here is create the first step toward monitoring the strength and efficiency of the biological pump using satellite observations,” said Siegel, who is also a professor of marine science in UCSB’s Department of Geography. “The approach is unique in that previous ways have been empirical without considering the dynamics of the ocean food web.” The space/time patterns created by those empirical approaches are inconsistent with how oceanographers think the oceans should work, he noted.

...“Quantifying this carbon flux is critical for predicting the atmosphere’s response to changing climates,” Siegel said. “By analyzing the scattering signals that we got from satellite measurements of the ocean’s color, we were able to develop techniques to calculate how much of the biomass occurs in very large or very small particles.”

...The researchers are taking their model one step further by planning a major field program designed to better understand the states in which the biological pump operates. “Understanding the biological pump is critical,” Siegel concluded. “We need to understand where carbon goes, how much of it goes into the organic matter, how that affects the air-sea exchanges of CO2 and what happens to fossil fuel we have emitted from our tailpipes.”...

Shown are the links among the ocean’s biological pump and pelagic food web. Light blue waters are the euphotic zone, while the darker blue waters represent the twilight zone. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Joint Global Ocean Flux Study

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