Tiny plankton drive processes in the ocean that capture twice as much carbon as scientists thought

Ocean carbon storage is driven by phytoplankton blooms, like the turquoise swirls visible here in the North Sea and waters off Denmark. NASA

Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce organic carbon through photosynthesis, like plants on land.

When plankton die or are consumed, a set of processes known as the biological carbon pump carries sinking particles of carbon from the surface to the deep ocean in a process known as marine snowfall. Naturalist and writer Rachel Carson called it the “most stupendous snowfall on Earth.”

Some of this carbon is consumed by sea life, and a portion is chemically broken down. Much of it is carried to deep waters, where it can remain for hundreds to thousands of years. If the deep oceans didn’t store so much carbon, the Earth would be even warmer than it is today.

In a recent study, I worked with colleagues from the U.S., Australia and Canada to understand how efficiently the biological pump captures carbon as part of this marine snowfall. Past efforts to answer this question often measured marine snowfall at a set reference depth, such as 450 feet (150 meters). In contrast, we paid closer attention to the depth of something called the euphotic zone. This is the ocean layer close to the surface, where enough light penetrates for photosynthesis to happen.

We accounted more accurately for how deep the euphotic zone extends by using chlorophyll sensors, which indicate the presence of plankton. This approach revealed that the sunlit zone extends farther down in some regions of the ocean than in others. Taking this new information into account, we estimate that the biological pump carries twice as much heat-trapping carbon down from the surface ocean than previously thought.

A recent study shows that scientists have drastically underestimated how efficiently the ocean’s biological pump moves carbon from the surface to deep waters.

Why it matters

The biological pump phenomenon takes place over the entire ocean. That means that even small changes in its efficiency could significantly change atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and, as a result, global climate.

Moreover, light penetration varies regionally and seasonally throughout the oceans. It’s key to understand those differences so that ocean scientists can incorporate biological processes into better global climate models.

We also considered another ocean phenomenon that involves the largest animal migration on Earth. It’s called diel vertical migration, and happens around the globe. Every 24 hours, a massive wave of plankton and fish ascend from the twilight zone to feed at night at the surface, then descend back to darker waters in daytime.

Scientists think this process moves a lot of carbon from the surface to deeper waters. Our study suggests that the amount of carbon carried by these daily migrations must also be measured at the same boundary where light disappears, so that scientists can directly compare the marine snowfall to the active migration.

Phytoplankton in the ocean consume carbon dioxide as they photosynthesize. When they are eaten or decompose, some of the carbon they contain falls into the ocean depths via a process called the biological pump. U.S. JGOFS

How we did it

For this study, we reviewed previous research on the biological pump. To compare results, we first determined how deep the sunlit region extended. We found this boundary at the depth where it became too dark to see any more chlorophyll pigments, which mark the presence of marine phytoplankton layers. Across the studies, that depth varied between 100 and 550 feet (30 to 170 meters).

Next, we estimated how much organic carbon sank into deeper waters in these studies, and measured how much remained in particles that sank another 330 feet (100 meters) deeper into the twilight zone. Many creatures live and feed in these deep waters, including fish, squid, worms and jellyfish. Some of them consume sinking carbon particles, reducing the amount of marine snowfall.

Comparing these two numbers gave us an estimate of how efficiently the biological pump was moving carbon into deep waters. The studies that we reviewed produced a wide range of values. Overall, we calculated that the biological pump was capturing twice as much carbon as previous studies that did not take into account the wide range of light penetration depths. Regional patterns also changed: Areas with shallow light penetration accounted for a higher percentage of carbon removal than areas with deeper light penetration.

The ocean twilight zone may hold more life than all of Earth’s fisheries combined, and up to 1 million undiscovered species.

What still isn’t known

Our study reveals that scientists need to use using a more systematic approach to defining the ocean’s vertical boundaries for organic carbon production and loss. This finding is timely, because the international oceanographic community is calling for more and better studies of the biological carbon pump and the ocean twilight zone.

The twilight zone could be profoundly affected if nations seek to develop new midwater fisheries, mine the seafloor for minerals or use it as a dumping ground for waste. Scientists are forming a collaborative effort called the Joint Exploration of the Twilight Zone Ocean Network, or JETZON, to set research priorities, promote new technologies and better coordinate twilight zone studies.

To compare these studies, researchers need a common set of metrics. For the biological carbon pump, we need to better understand how big this flow of carbon is, and how efficiently it is transported into deeper water for long-term storage. These processes will affect how Earth responds to rising greenhouse gas emissions and the warming they cause.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]

Ken Buesseler, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
May 25, 2020 6:14 am

Brilliant. Thanks.

More evidence that the real carbon cycle is more complicated than the one assumed by climate science.


Curious George
Reply to  Chaamjamal
May 25, 2020 7:44 am

It can’t be. The science is settled.

Reply to  Chaamjamal
May 25, 2020 9:06 am

Have they ever wondered about what oil wells were producing?

Rich Davis
Reply to  Chaamjamal
May 25, 2020 9:20 am

Oh I don’t know about all the positive comments here. The article seems to be totally in line with orthodox green theology. If countries decide to do anything whatsoever economically beneficial in the oceans, the “biological carbon pump” could be disrupted and the planet could warm even more. (Because it goes without saying that CO2 is the master control knob for the climate and any less CO2 being sequestered is going to heat up the earth “even more”!)

What they are saying is that the oceans are even more fragile than we thought and if we dare to try to benefit from them, CO2 karma’s gonna get you.

Reply to  Rich Davis
May 25, 2020 11:42 am

50 shades of glyphosates? Probably. They are the perpetual tricksters.

Reply to  Rich Davis
May 25, 2020 3:20 pm

What is this Carbon you speak of?

Reply to  Rich Davis
May 26, 2020 12:28 am

But CO2 is control knob, only different way.
By removing CO2 you can attenuate or switch off life.

Reply to  Peter
May 26, 2020 1:32 am

Thank you Peter! They always get the control knob wrong.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Chaamjamal
May 25, 2020 12:23 pm

The last comment in their above article kinda puts everything they said into question:, to wit:

These processes will affect how Earth responds to rising greenhouse gas emissions and the warming they cause.

Charles Higley
Reply to  Chaamjamal
May 26, 2020 7:09 am

Although it is nice to know more about how the different processes of the world work, the statement—
“The biological pump phenomenon takes place over the entire ocean. That means that even small changes in its efficiency could significantly change atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and, as a result, global climate”—is just wrong overall.

CO2 does not drive the climate and never has. A greenhouse effect can not occur from any gas at any concentration in the atmosphere. It is thermodynamically impossible for a cooler gas to warm a warmer surface. If night time is added to the models (24/7 daytime), which has not been done, CO2 and water vapor, as radiative gases, serves to cool the atmosphere, again making the atmosphere cooler than the surface.

If anything, more CO2 serves to cool the climate, as water vapor and CO2 are basically saturated with IR in sunlight and thus has no effect on air temperature in sunlight, and not heating the atmosphere as the warmist science erroneously claims.

Furthermore, Mizkolski showed years ago that, as CO2 rises in the atmosphere, absolute water vapor decreases and again makes the atmosphere less of the” greenhouse gas effect” that they like to claim it is.

May 25, 2020 6:19 am

wait a minute here…it wasn’t that long ago ‘scientists’ said plankton was dying and getting less

Jack Black
Reply to  Latitude
May 25, 2020 8:38 am

…. “I am not a scientist, but I have a white labcoat, and I play one on TeeVee” ?

Wow, who’d have guessed that tiny marine organisms at the stat of marine food chain of carbon based fauna, actually consume CO2. Did we need decades of research, and millions of pounds paid to rent seekers to “discover” this phenomenon?

This is indeed the issue, that “Carbon” has been sequestered in this fashion for millions of years, and ultimately will remove so much from the biosphere, that life as we know it will be unsustainable in the end. Burning fossil fuels will merely return some of this captured “Carbon” to the atmosphere, but alas provide only a temporary respite, in terms of geological time.

Reply to  Jack Black
May 25, 2020 10:22 am

CO2…..”A limiting factor is anything that constrains a population’s size and slows or stops it from growing. “

Glen Ferrier
Reply to  Jack Black
May 25, 2020 6:24 pm

We should exam this issue more carefully because it is the foundation of the worlds largest and best renewable resource… oil and gas.


Reply to  Jack Black
May 26, 2020 12:33 am

It does not need to be temporary. Carbohydrates are replenished by geological processes, so you have some permanent rate you can use.
Also you can use other sources of creating CO2, like cement production. Cooking limestone is creating CO2 from “permanently” sequestered limestone. You just need to do it by solar power and you have sustainability.

May 25, 2020 6:25 am

How can we have “SETTLED SCIENCE” when every few months I read another article like this? We have not even removed the snow on the tip of the iceberg of knowledge that we do NOT know about Climate Science.

Reply to  Uzurbrain
May 25, 2020 8:26 am

Science is never settled. Opinions are, and often cast in concrete long before any science is ever done.

May 25, 2020 6:26 am

Not yet read the paper, but the notion that the assumed number for ocean drawdown can be this far out is very interesting.

Does this show just how very approximate the ‘mass balance’ calculations for CO2 natural exchanges are? Or are there alternative ways to calculate the biological numbers which reduce these uncertainties? I have always been suspicious of the mass balance argument – feel it is misrepresenting how the atmospheric CO2 arises.

I have an open mind on this.

May 25, 2020 6:31 am

When author says”carbon”, is it meant to be carbon or carbon dioxide. They are different you know, solid vs gas for one, completely different chemical properties for another. Confusing to say the least, non-scientific effort to be politically correct at worst. I suspect the latter.

Carlo, Monte
Reply to  Bucky
May 25, 2020 6:58 am

Exactly my thoughts—does this “snow” consist of carbon dioxide as a gas?

And by “author” you obviously mean the clueless tech writer who penned this drivel.

Reply to  Carlo, Monte
May 25, 2020 9:28 am

Good golly no, the “snow” is the dead and sinking bodies of phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Phytoplankton consume CO2 from sea water (dissolved) and use the sun’s energy to create bodies and swim about. Zooplankton eat phytoplankton and also contribute to the “snow”
The author did include a link to an interesting video of just such “snow”:

While phytoplankton are consuming CO2 directly along with other minerals, zooplankton are consuming captured carbon that has been converted into longer molecular chains.

Carlo, Monte
Reply to  Rocketscientist
May 25, 2020 7:02 pm

So the inference hinted at by the article is that the snow prevents transfer of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or even sucks it out of the air.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Carlo, Monte
May 26, 2020 4:16 am

NAAAAHHH, …. the “snow” represents a “waste” product of biological activity ….. and if it makes it way to the ocean floor it is considered “sequestered” CO2.

David J Riser
Reply to  Bucky
May 25, 2020 7:03 am

They are referring to carbon, which is what carbon dioxide is made of and which in the ocean becomes carbonic acid and due to chemical processes converted to other forms of inorganic carbon. Inorganic carbon consists of carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, bicarbonate and carbonate. The relative abundance of each is determined by pH. Organic carbon which is what they are mostly talking about is where a phytoplankton turns one of the species of inorganic carbon into a sugar of some sort normally of the form of a multiple of CH2O. With a few additions with nitrogen and phosphorus in a roughly constant proportion of 106C:16N:1P. So the idea here is that the carbon portion of the surgar, derived from some form of carbon dioxide sinks when the phytoplankton dies or is eaten and pooped out. eventually feeding the deeper ocean and some of that ends up in the sediments on the bottom.
David Riser

Reply to  Bucky
May 25, 2020 7:18 am

The snow is from the calcium carbonate shell of phytoplankton that have died. The organic center of phytoplankton is lighter than sea water and keeps it near the surface where it can get sunlight. Blooms occur in cold polar waters. They ride surface currents, like the Humbolt, to the tropics. When they die in the tropics, the lighter organic matter decays producing CO2 which is dissolved in surface waters. When these surface waters evaporate, the CO2 it contains is released into the atmosphere. This organic source CO2 has a C13/C12 index ratio of about 13. The amout of phytoplankton has been gradually increasing for over 60 years. Thus the fraction of organic CO2 with an index of about 13 has been gradually increasing in the atmosphere. This increase shows up in the average index value of atmospheric CO2 becoming more negative.

David J Riser
Reply to  Fred Haynie
May 25, 2020 8:07 am

Blooms occur whenever and wherever conditions are right for the variety of phytoplankton at that location. Calcium carbonate is only a small part of the “snow” which includes fecal pellets; dead plankton and bacteria of all types; and particulate particles from a variety of sources primarily airborne. The organic center of the various plankton is not necessarily lighter, this is a complex topic for a blog, but basically some of it sinks some of it gets recycled by biological processes, some sticks to particles with the upshot that a variable percentage ends up sinking as snow.
David Riser

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  David J Riser
May 25, 2020 9:40 am

Bacteria are typically so small that I would expect extremely low sinking rates, their movement being dominated by Brownian Motion and surface turbulent currents. There is no question that there are abundant bacteria in deep waters, but I suspect that the different kinds of bacteria are stratified by depth, where they specialize in different food sources.

David J Riser
Reply to  Clyde Spencer
May 26, 2020 7:54 pm

Bacteria typically attach to larger particles, so yes they will typically stay at a particular depth if free swimming but in order to break down organic carbon they attach themselves to the particle and particles have sinking velocities that are slow but vary particle to particle depending on surface area and mass. So snow has bacteria on it.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Fred Haynie
May 25, 2020 9:32 am

You said, “When these surface waters evaporate, the CO2 it contains is released into the atmosphere.” You have touched on something that I don’t recollect ever seeing explicitly addressed. When I think of out-gassing of CO2 at the surface of the ocean, I always unconsciously attribute it to the fact that the solubility of CO2 decreases with increasing temperature. Thus, the OCO-2 satellite unsurprisingly shows significant CO2 over the tropical oceans. Considering temperature alone, an important process is ignored, namely the huge amount of water evaporated at the surface of water bodies, both from temperature-induced evaporation, and wind stripping off molecules of water, even in colder climes.

here are two possible results from removing surface water. One, that you allude to, is for the dissolved CO2 to simply leave also because the carrier it was dissolved in is gone. The other path is for the CO2 to remain behind. However, this has implications for the carbonate/bicarbonate ratio, the pH, and the concentration of CO2 and carbonic acid, which are temperature controlled. This also has implications for isotopic fractionation of the carbon, which will probably be greater for the second route. This introduces a whole different level of complexity above what I have usually seen addressed in my readings. Where is Loydo when I need him/her to answer such conundrums?

Reply to  Bucky
May 25, 2020 2:57 pm

They specifically mention “organic carbon,” which is carbon contained in once living cells.

May 25, 2020 6:32 am

For a detailed explanation of how phytoplankton have been changing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, go to http://www.retiredresearcher.wordpress.com.

Jim Ross
Reply to  Fred Haynie
May 25, 2020 7:14 am


It looks to me like your “Arctic heavy carbon depletion index” is actually the δ13C of the atmospheric CO2 as measured in per mil units. If it is different, could you please explain the relationship.

Reply to  Jim Ross
May 25, 2020 7:33 am

What I have done is to ratio the measured atmospheric value to the indexed value of inorganic CO2 which is measured in per mil units. Since that “standard” is taken as “0” and the ratio is dimensionless, you can calculate the fraction that is organic.

May 25, 2020 6:40 am

If the deep oceans didn’t store so much carbon, the Earth would be even warmer than it is today.

No, a warmer ocean would outgas more CO2 while a colder ocean will absorb/store more CO2.

If not for ice ages much more CO2 would’ve outgassed with much less ocean ‘carbon’ storage.

He also didn’t mention coral reefs; reef base growth is part of biological CO2 pumping.

Nor did he say which conditions are more or less favorable for phytoplankton growth.

Just Jenn
May 25, 2020 6:42 am

Well NSS.

Vertical migration and marine snow are nothing new, known about them for a while now. Just like the light zone that varies; any marine biology and/or oceanography student studies this in sophomore/junior year.

That being said however, bout dang time that someone pointed out the big freaking blue thing on our planet is more than 18″ deep, filled with O2 giving life, and responsible for more than simply looking pretty and forming waves to surf.

HD Hoese
Reply to  Just Jenn
May 25, 2020 8:15 am

“ This approach revealed that the sunlit zone extends farther down in some regions of the ocean than in others. Taking this new information into account….” “This zone extends down to 80 or more meters.” (p. 774) and “The unevenness of phytoplankton distribution both in space (horizontal and vertically) and in time…. (p. 772) Sverdrup, et al., 1942, The Oceans. Falling with scavenging organic matter does not sound much like a “pump.”

Of course, this is an advocacy piece, history doesn’t matter. The comment about upwelling ocean pipes is also nothing new (late 1970s?, before?)

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  HD Hoese
May 25, 2020 9:45 am

HD Hoese
You said, “Of course, this is an advocacy piece, history doesn’t matter.” It is, after all, The Conversation, whose reputation precedes it, and whose editorial policy officially supports censorship of comments that disagree with the position of papers accepted for publication.

May 25, 2020 6:43 am

the biological pump carries twice as much
Amazing. Worse than you thought. A first for climate science.

Wouldn’t it make sense to simply look at cores of the ocean floor?

May 25, 2020 6:45 am

Who’d a thunk it? Anyone who knows anything about homeostasis.

Gary Pearse
May 25, 2020 7:00 am

I’m afraid I am not impressed. There is absolutely no aparent awareness by a major oceanographic institution of the existence of the carbonate compensation depth in the ocean. The phenomenon describes a pressure/ temperature regime at depths ~ 4000 to 5000m where the carbonate “snow” from plankton redesolves, reclaiming Ca^(2+) in solution and releasing CO2!!

These researchers, as it seems for so many in the busted attempt at science by the Climate Clucks Clan, are a total waste of money. So let me adjust your “model”: (What You Said ) minus the area of ocean at and below 4000m.

David J Riser
Reply to  Gary Pearse
May 25, 2020 7:11 am

They are aware, but you are talking about calcium carbonate and they are discussing organic carbon, two different things. Specifically, they are discussing the portion of the phytoplankton that is not calcium carbonate, which is only the hard parts of a phytoplankton and generally the hard parts are not edible but get recycled through remineralization and bacterial action.
Really the only issue with the paper is the idea that you can average something that changes over time and distance; seasonally; and with large scale decadal processes such as ENSO.
David Riser

Gary Pearse
Reply to  David J Riser
May 25, 2020 9:12 am

David, thanks, you are correct on their vision of the deep ocean carbon pumping, but for the bottom arrow pointing (in the illustration) down into the depths, the so-called carbonate snow (which seems to have been overlooked by the researchers) would be the largest part of any carbon cycle activity at depth (the White Cliffs of Dover are a Cretaceous deposit (shallow water of course) of coccolithophores that give some scale to the phenomenon).


“Coccolithophores are one of the main types of phytoplankton in the ocean and their production of calcium carbonate significantly diminishes the effectiveness of the biological pump for sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) in the deep ocean.”

Even the Science Direct article (which at least gives quantification to the carbonate snow aspect) has got it woefully wrong in its main understanding of the deep ocean CO2 pump:
As the sinking carbonate ‘skeletons’ approach the CCD at ~4000m, their dissolution increases releasing CO2 back into the seawater. The seawater is only about 3C and CO2 (and Ca^+2) are both highly soluble at such cold temperatures and high pressures. This IS the major part of the CO2 “organic” pump, if not the whole thing! Fish and plankton fecal matter is broken down by bacteria while still at shallow depth. Surely, this not what the researchers believe is the main CO2 pump for the oceans?

The Science D quote, is completely wrong headed – the formation of carbonate shells by plankton, their snowing down to depth, their dissolution and release of CO2 into the cold high pressure water is the very CO2 pump itself. Can it be that the entire oceanographic field has this important cycle wrong? Not even mentioning the CCD gives suspicion that they may be unaware of it.

David J Riser
Reply to  Gary Pearse
May 26, 2020 8:08 pm

um, yes we are aware of it. but its not the pump were concerned with, because what you are describing is dissolved inorganic carbon in some kind of ionic compound of calcium and yes at some point, salt water low in calcium will pull it apart and remove the calcium and leave the carbonate but that does not mean it will return to the surface or that there is a major change in the carbon of the ocean. The idea of the biological pump is removal of various forms of organic carbon to the sediments, where it stays until turned into sedimentary rock or taken into the earth through tectonic processes. So the pump were talking about is not the oceans inorganic carbon cycle which starts with CO2 from the atmosphere which very quickly becomes carbonic acid and then bicarbonate and carbonate speciated by the pH of the water. This is a natural chemical reaction and is why the oceans can hold so much carbon dioxide in the first place. When phytoplankton convert that to organic carbon it can and does find its way into the snow through a variety of processes but realize that phytoplankton produce enough biomass to feed everything in the ocean. This is an astounding amount of biological material. If you really want the details read Steven R Emerson and John L Hedges book “Chemical Oceanography and the Marine Carbon Cycle” it goes over the chemistry of the entire marine carbon cycle which is complicated in the extreme but they do a great job of breaking it down.
David Riser

Gary Pearse
Reply to  David J Riser
May 28, 2020 10:56 am

David, this is too late to expect an answer from you, but here it is. You are describing inorganic precip of CaCO3. I am describing organic carbonate, the very skeletal “shells” made by the plankton creatures. You do seem unaware of this much more massive carbon from plankton. Google White Cliffs of Dover as a sample of this kind of accumulation (in water shallower than 4000m). 80% or so of the ocean is deeper than 4000m and all the plankton skeletons settling below 4000m in 80% of the ocean is sequestern in the deeps. This IS the carbon pump.

Fish poop, this nutrient packed material, is mostly, if not all, decomposed by the quadrillions of bacteria in the main fish layer in the oceans. You ocean guys got to talk to more people for getting the gin on this admittedly very multidisciplinary science.

Bruce Cobb
May 25, 2020 7:07 am

The Ocean Twilight Zone: The boundary between what is known about the ocean’s “carbon” and what is pure fantasy. WHOI and The Conversation start off with science, but then they keep wandering into the OTZ. It is a fuzzy world, of light and shadow, where up may be down, and down up. It is indeed a world of imagination.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
May 25, 2020 9:45 am

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call the Ocean Twilight Zone.

May 25, 2020 7:13 am

It would be nice if it were warmer than today here in the Denver area. Just have to wait a few days.

It snowed about 10″ in the mountains yesterday and there has been some return of sanity with the governor allowing Arapahoe Basin ski resort to open for limited skiing.


Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Scissor
May 25, 2020 9:50 am

It is 85 deg F in southern Ohio, and humid! Typical for the end of May, although I’ve come to expect it AFTER Memorial Day, not before Memorial Day.

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
May 25, 2020 11:00 am

I’ll try to blow some cool air your way but I’m sure this damn mask will slow it. You may have to wait a few days for some respit(e).

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
May 25, 2020 11:07 am

Just wait a few days.

Carlo, Monte
Reply to  Scissor
May 25, 2020 7:04 pm

36 F here this morning.

May 25, 2020 7:27 am

Plankton capturing carbon. Bacteria consuming oil. And throughout, a sun shining and driving the chaos (“evolution”).

Gordon A. Dressler
May 25, 2020 7:30 am

If anyone is worried about CO2 at 415 ppm sea-level atmospheric concentration, the biological carbon pump is only half of the equation (pardon the pun). How much more have we yet to learn about the biological oxygen pump?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 25, 2020 7:44 am

Mea culpa . . . I should have referenced this recent example from WUWT: “Study: Ancient ocean oxygen levels associated with changing atmospheric carbon dioxide”

Ron Long
May 25, 2020 7:55 am

Who would have thought that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute would make a video about oil production? That’s correct, plankton are accumulated in black shales and decompose to produce BLACK GOLD! What a wonderful bedtime story. Thanks!

May 25, 2020 7:57 am

This brings to mind a “carbon capture experiment” (funded by the Haida, done by scientists, but not very scientific) in 2012 to “dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the water in an effort to restore waning salmon stocks.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/haida-gwaii-ocean-fertalizing-chile-1.3550783 . The experimental strategy: “the process stimulates biological productivity in the marine environment, triggering a phytoplankton bloom that travels up the food chain and ultimately bolsters salmon populations.” The economic objective was to stimulate fisheries, but “the phytoplankton bloom would act as a natural sponge to capture carbon from the atmosphere.” Perhaps by coincidence, the salmon run that year was excellent.
I have long been on the lookout for economically practical strategies that a) suck carbon out of the atmosphere b) use a process that does not add more carbon than it removes, and c) put the carbon somewhere where it will not re-enter the air. If the process also d) generates more delicious food for the population then that is a bonus.
Maybe human-amplified marine snowfall is worth considering?

Reply to  boffin77
May 25, 2020 8:59 am

The worldwide lockdowns have reduced human emissions of carbon dioxide by 17%, an amount that is not visible in Mauna Loa testing, you’re arguing to remove CO2 from natural causes, and invasive efforts to change natural processes via active intervention. I would be wary of unintended consequences. I don’t believe scientists can predict CAGW years into the future, I also don’t believe they can predict outcomes of seemingly simple interventions into natural processes, either.

Reply to  max
May 25, 2020 9:13 am

Yeah. I know … law of unintended consequences etc. Also it’s not clear that the cost (in carbon) of producing and delivering 100 tonnes of iron sulphate would be less than the amount of carbon captured.

Reply to  boffin77
May 25, 2020 10:04 am

What is clear is that the oceans are sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and if that continues unabated then all life will die.

Reply to  MarkG
May 25, 2020 11:06 am

Yes, and we’re closer to the lower end of the natural range than the higher end.

Reply to  MarkG
May 25, 2020 3:22 pm

“if that continues unabated then all life will die” Hah! Sarcasm I presume.

Reply to  MarkG
May 25, 2020 4:06 pm

As far as life support goes, I firmly believe that the planet is self regulating.
It occurs on geological time scales, but it does happen.
We may or may not be affected by it.

Reply to  MarkG
May 25, 2020 7:30 pm

We’re doomed, as I keep telling you.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  boffin77
May 25, 2020 9:10 am

“. . . put the carbon somewhere where it will not re-enter the air . . .” If you are talking about carbon bound in organic molecules and are not willing to wait, oh, several millions years or so, good luck with that.

The carbon bound in “delicious food” reappears rather quickly as gaseous CO2 due to metabolic activity, including that of bacteria acting on excrement.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 25, 2020 5:07 pm

Gordon, I was just thinking of the tiny shells of the plankton, made of Calcium Carbonate, falling like snow from the sky and creating an ever-deep layer on the seafloor. Basically I’m keen to offset some of the carbon we are pulling into the atmosphere. Planting trees does not achieve that because the wood eventually either rots to CH4 or burns to CO2.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  boffin77
May 25, 2020 7:42 pm

Good comment about the carbon bound up as calcium carbonate in sea-life biological structures, but doesn’t that mostly come from CO2 already dissolved in the world’s oceans . . . and not so much out of the atmosphere directly?

And yes, I should have mentioned that bacteria digest organic material to produce both CO2 and CH4 (methane) gases that directly enter Earth’s atmosphere.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 26, 2020 8:49 am

I don’t mind that plankton snow comes from CO2 dissolved in the seawater, as long as it pulls Carbon out of the Carbon Cycle (dissolved CO2 migrates in and out of the atmosphere), hides it away for eons, and thus to some small extent counterbalances our industrious initiatives to release deep-earth Carbon back into the Carbon cycle. There are not too many processes that achieve this.

May 25, 2020 8:15 am

“Scientists think this process …” Oh. You mean the scientists have an OPINION (fine, in and of itself), but here we see that the science is NOT settled. Once again.
Thank you, Dr. Buesseler for some science du jour.

May 25, 2020 8:27 am

The oceans are our enormous chemical factories. First off, water is a universal solvent. Given enough time, it will dissolve anything (how much gold is dissolved in it?). Then throw in energy coming from the Sun and subsurface vents, hydrocarbons bubbling up from below, nutrients flowing from rivers and couple it with all kinds of living things and voila, chemical reactions are happening left and right.

I started growing oysters under my dock on the creek off the Chesapeake Bay and three years later the rip rap is covered with oyster shells from the spat given off from the oysters in the floats. Lots of carbon in those shells. I think it’s great they are trying to quantify a lot of the basic processes by the simple life forms in the oceans because they do effect us all. At least they are out there physically measuring things.

William Abbott
Reply to  rbabcock
May 25, 2020 8:53 am

Viruses drive much of the phytoplankton life cycle. There are 3 billion viruses in every ounce of sea water. Viruses are the population control of blue-green algae. The oceans as we know them wouldn’t exist without these viral death mechanisms. It is obvious we can’t computer model the future when we have such limited understanding of the present. How can the science be settled when we haven’t even imagined the experiments?

Ronald Reece
May 25, 2020 10:06 am

Interesting.. Could it be that the late Dr. John Martin’s beliefs on using Iron Fertilization to augment depleted phytoplankton populations is gaining renewed credibility?

Is it just coincidence that, since 1950, oceanic phytoplankton populations have apparently decreased by 40% while CO2 levels have increased by 50% over the same period of time? Less oceanic photosynthesis (supposedly 80% of global totals) is not inconsequential, IMO..

And, of course, there is the magnificent by-product of augmenting the marine food chain which is already serious depleted by over-fishing, combined with oceanic “famine”..

Has to make one wonder..

I still believe John Martin was/is deserving of a Nobel Prize for his research..

Maybe someday…



Neil Jordan
May 25, 2020 11:28 am

Two commenters got the magic word – fecal. The plankton poop falling faster than expected is the fecal express.
This article is from 2015, although the concept of fecal express was developed in the late 1960s, early 1970s studying radioactivity discharges from the Columbia River into the Pacific – how did the radioactivity with such short half-life get down to the abyssal Pacific?

Walter Sobchak
May 25, 2020 11:31 am

Oh No! It’s worse than we thought!

What will you do?
What will you do?

Apologies to the late, great, Karl Malden.

May 25, 2020 12:20 pm

Meanwhile we get this gem from U of Queensland:


NB: TOTALLY BASED ON MODELS, no mention of field work to validate anything.

Tom Abbott
May 25, 2020 12:54 pm

From the article: “The biological pump phenomenon takes place over the entire ocean. That means that even small changes in its efficiency could significantly change atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and, as a result, global climate.”

No. There is no evidence that CO2 is changing the global climate. This is pure speculation posing as established fact. This is the heart of Human-caused climate change science. No evidence, just unsupported assertions.

The author of the article assumes too much. Assuming too much is not very scientific.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
May 25, 2020 4:07 pm

“The article” was put out by The Conversation Tom. Often referred to as The Monologue on this site.

The article has enough science to reel you in, (sorry) but you know that there’s a AGW message that is either leaving something out or is adding a self serving spin.

It has got a scientific ‘conversation’ going though, so isn’t that a good thing?

May 25, 2020 1:23 pm

Up-welling brings the nutrient’s “snow” back up, resulting in the richest fisheries in the world.

The Humboldt Current off Chile and Peru is not merely cold because it sweeps north from antarctic waters, but also due to at least three zones of up-welling from cold ocean depths. These up-wellings are seasonal, and also are weakened by El Ninos and strengthened by La-Ninas, which involve Trade Winds, which may in turn involve variations in the sun’s energy due to sunspot cycles. Also you need to add in a counter current called the Cromwell heading east to the coast of Peru even as the surface currents curve away from the coast and head west. Got all that? The variables involved keep the fishermen of Peru constantly guessing, and I think the same should be true for “Climate Scientists.” Likely the systems off Peru, and elsewhere, are too changeable and complex to model, and actual satellite measurements are better.

If I had the funding to spare I sure would like to dangle a camera down in that “Twilight zone” and see what critters came by. A camera attached to a buoy, sending pictures like the “North Pole Camera” once did.

William Astley
May 25, 2020 1:38 pm

Where is a direct observation that there is a massive CO2 sink into the deep ocean and a link to a review summary that notes …

“The alleged long lifetime of 500 years for carbon diffusing to the deep ocean is of no relevance to the debate on the fate of anthropogenic CO and the “Greenhouse Effect”, because particular carbon can sink to the bottom of the ocean in less than a year (Toggweiler, 1990).”


Bomb C14 Found in Ocean Deepest Trenches

‘Bomb Carbon’ from Cold War Nuclear Tests Found in the Ocean’s Deepest Trenches

Bottom feeders
Organic matter in the amphipods’ guts held carbon-14, but the carbon-14 levels in the amphipods’ bodies were much higher. Over time, a diet rich in carbon-14 likely flooded the amphipods’ tissues with bomb carbon, the scientists concluded.

Ocean circulation alone would take centuries to carry bomb carbon to the deep sea. But thanks to the ocean food chain, bomb carbon arrived at the seafloor far sooner than expected, lead study author Ning Wang, a geochemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou, said in a statement.

The Bern equation (Bern equation is named after the city of Bern and is an IPCC created ‘equation’ about CO2 sources and sinks) assumes zero biological material is being sequestered in the ocean.

This is a good summary of the physical impossibility assumptions/mechanics of the Bern equation.

Carbon cycle modelling and the residence time of natural and anthropogenic atmospheric CO2: on the construction of the “Greenhouse Effect Global Warming” dogma.


Money quote:

“At this point one should note that the ocean is composed of more than its 75 m thick top layer and its deep, and that it indeed contains organics. The residence time of suspended POC (particular organic carbon; carbon pool of about 1000 giga-tonnes; some 130% of the atmospheric carbon pool) in the deep sea is only 5-10 years.

This alone would consume all possible man-made CO from the total fossil fuel reservoir (some 7200 giga-tonnes) if burned during the next 300 years, because this covers 6 to 15 turnovers of the upper-ocean pool of POC, based on radiocarbon (carbon-14) studies (Toggweiler, 1990; Druffel & Williams, 1990; see also Jaworowski et al., 1992 a).

The alleged long lifetime of 500 years for carbon diffusing to the deep ocean is of no relevance to the debate on the fate of anthropogenic CO and the “Greenhouse Effect”, because POC can sink to the bottom of the ocean in less than a year (Toggweiler, 1990).”

May 25, 2020 3:12 pm

This is another example of “Rediscovering the Already Discovered”. Over 50 years ago the first paragraph of Chapter 3 “Producers: Capture of Light Energy” from the second edition of the California State Series “A Sourcebook for the Biological Sciences” reads…

“It is estimated that 90 percent of all photosynthesis is carried on by marine and fresh-water algae and the remaining 10 percent by cultivated and wild land plants. Put another way, some 200 billion tons of carbon are fixed annually by photosynthesizing plants if the oceans and fresh water and by land plants.” (page 155)

A few years ago I tried verifying that 90 percent by internet searches and kept coming up with estimates from various sources of around 50 percent. And I never could find any reference to the Biological Sourcebook. 90 percent is probably still accurate but I’d guess the 200 billion tons of carbon fixed is greater.

Lo and behold! That book is still around, available online here: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL5984070M/A_sourcebook_for_the_biological_sciences as well as Amazon. Once upon a time this was the instructors’ go-to book for lab exercises at the high school and college level.

May 25, 2020 3:38 pm

Once again the Science is not as settled as they thought. This time it is by a factor of 2:1. ‘ Settled Science’ has lost its meaning and will have to go the way of Global Warming.

May 25, 2020 5:11 pm

There is the obligatory crap about (unmeasured, unestimated) dangers from mining the sea floor. Reminds me of jokes about excited male mosquitos tackling indifferent female elephants. Geoff S

p.s. It remains possible that I was the first scientist banned forever from commenting on The Conversation. So, I follow their progress from a distance. It is interesting that the standard of science it permits gets poorer by the year. The % of silly assertions dressed up as science is distressing and increasing.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
May 25, 2020 6:32 pm

I doubt that the editor of The Conversation understands science well enough to define it. I’ve never been officially banned; however, I’ve had a number of comments removed because I disagreed with the author and made them look bad. Its been over a year (about the time they instituted their censorship editorial policy) since I’ve bothered to comment.

May 25, 2020 5:27 pm

What a disgrace, presumably they had to say that the carbon would otherwise have caused more global warming so that they would get their funding. Are these people completely lacking in integrity or are they incapable of analysing climate data?

May 25, 2020 10:54 pm

And the science was thought to be over….

Jon Joslin
May 26, 2020 6:55 pm

This is pure propaganda to take our eyes off the ball, making us think that climate change isn’t the imminent existential threat we already know it to be, that’s going to kill us all in our sleep in 5 years. AOC and Gore already told us this and we know it’s true because they said it. And I believe all women.

Brett Keane
May 26, 2020 7:16 pm

Folk who only think they know it all, say that ocean acdification is certain as we let more CO2 below the CCD as part of natural cycles. I don’t know it all, but I do know that all seafloors recycle over each c. 200million yrs. So, after deep heating and re-gassing tectonically, all forms of carbon and calcites continue to be made re-available as has happened some ten or twenty times so far.
Brett Keane, NZ

Phil Salmon
May 27, 2020 6:42 am

Summary – we zipped out in a mate’s boat and flopped some gear out into the sea. Then we took a few readings. The result of this jolly outing was to find that a parameter of the ocean biosphere – export production of carbon descent to the ocean floor, of critical importance to climate models upon which trillions of dollars of policy decisions have been based – is wrong by a factor of 100%.

Wonder what we’ll find tomorrow?

May 29, 2020 12:11 pm

Just Read “https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190605100335.htm ”

How deep-ocean vents fuel massive phytoplankton blooms: Study showshow hydrothermal vents fuel massive phytoplankton blooms — and possiblehotspots for carbon storage — ScienceDaily.
Imediatly thought of this article and how these Deep Ocean Vents would have a significant effect on the massive phytoplankton blooms discussed therein. These blooms need serious, in-depth, research and analysis.

Verified by MonsterInsights