The Ocean Is Still Sucking Up Carbon—Maybe More Than We Think

From EOS under CC license HT/Tom B

Recent studies looking at carbon-sequestering microbes suggest we still have a lot to learn about the ocean’s biological carbon pump.

By Nancy Averett 3 May 2022

A newly discovered marine microbe has a “mucosphere” that chemically traps other microbes and their nutrients—including carbon. Credit: Nature CommunicationsCC BY 4.0

The ocean plays a critical role in carbon sequestration. Phytoplankton, which live on the warm, light-filled surface, suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for food. They also need nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from colder, heavier, saltier water that upwells into warmer layers. When phytoplankton die, they sink, bringing some of the carbon and other nutrients they consumed with them back to the ocean depths.

Key to this circular process, known as the ocean’s biological carbon pump, is the vertical mixing of the surface and deeper water layers, which occurs through such mechanisms as currents, winds, and tides. However, because higher ocean temperatures cause greater stratification of these layers, traditional scientific models have long predicted that as the planet warms, this process would be disrupted, phytoplankton would be unable to thrive, and the ocean would sequester less carbon.

Now, two studies have shown the limits of such models. One found evidence that phytoplankton may become more efficient as the ocean warms. The other reported the discovery of a new, widely distributed ocean microbe species that also has the potential to sequester carbon.

​​“We often view the response of ocean carbon cycling to global warming as an on-off switch, but these results show it’s a dimmer switch and has some flexibility to take care of itself,” said Mike Lomas, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and lead author of the first study, published in Nature Communications.

Better Methods on the Horizon

Lomas and his colleagues analyzed 30 years of Sargasso Sea data through the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, in which scientists have been taking monthly ocean samples since 1988 to examine nutrients, carbon, salinity, temperature, and other properties of ocean water. Lomas and his coauthors found that even though fewer nutrients are traveling up from the ocean’s depths, phytoplankton are still taking up carbon from the atmosphere. One reason for this phenomenon, they suggested, may be that distributions of phytoplankton favor those species that need fewer nutrients from the ocean’s depths.

Some species “can actually keep fixing carbon at a ratio that is now 2 or 3 times higher than the Redfield ratio, which basically translates to, they’re still able to take up carbon dioxide, even when there [are] reduced inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus.”

One of the key points of the paper, Lomas said, is the idea that the ratio of carbon to nitrogen to phosphorus in phytoplankton (known as the Redfield ratio) used by traditional climate change models may not apply to certain phytoplankton species. Some species, Lomas said, “can actually keep fixing carbon at a ratio that is now 2 or 3 times higher than the Redfield ratio, which basically translates to, they’re still able to take up carbon dioxide, even when there [are] reduced inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus because the ratio with which they combine them is much higher.”

Steven Emerson, professor emeritus of chemical oceanography at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, said data collection from the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study was remarkable and important. However, he said, the station uses an older technique known as the sediment trap method to measure carbon particle flux (the rate at which carbon sinks to the deep ocean). “This particular method (sediment trap) is known not to make sense for determining this flux when you compare it with other methods,” Emerson said.

There are newer, more reliable methods for measuring the ocean’s carbon particle flux, Emerson said, using high-powered optical instruments that are put on floats and can measure particles with greater sensitivity as often as once every 5 days. The floats are “going to be all over the ocean very soon,” he said. “And they and the data from [them] will test whether or not this sediment trap flux (in Lomas’s paper) is really right.… So it’s, you know, to be continued.”

New Ocean Microbe Traps Its Prey

“It takes this straw-like appendage and sucks the insides out of these microbes that it’s trapped. And then it lets the whole thing go.”

In a different study, also published in Nature CommunicationsMartina Doblin, an oceanographer with the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, and colleagues described a microbial marine species called Prorocentrum cf. balticum. This species is a mixotroph, which means it can perform photosynthesis like phytoplankton but it can also consume other microbes, which allows it to live in deeper ocean layers. What’s more, Prorocentrum cf. balticum uses the carbon it gets from photosynthesis to build a structure out of mucus, which researchers dubbed a “mucosphere,” that chemically attracts and traps other microbes, some of which Prorocentrum cf. balticum then consumes.

“It takes this straw-like appendage and sucks the insides out of these microbes that it’s trapped,” said Doblin. “And then it lets the whole thing go.” Inside the mucosphere are a variety of microbes (including carbon), she said, and because the mucosphere is “negatively buoyant,” it sinks.

The unique mucosphere of Prorocentrum cf. balticum may allow it to transport carbon to the deep ocean. Credit: Nature CommunicationsCC BY 4.0. Click image for larger version.

Doblin said the study began with the premise that if the ocean is becoming more unpredictable, then it might favor mixotrophs. She and her team took a sample of ocean water from an oceanographic station located 30 kilometers southeast of Sydney. Michaela Larsson, a postdoc in Doblin’s lab, then put the sample in low-light conditions so that any microbes would need more than photosynthesis to survive.

A week later, Doblin said, Larsson noticed they had an abundance of one kind of organism, which she began feeding different types of food and exposing to different light conditions. The team matched the creature’s DNA to samples from the Tara Oceans project, in which a team of interdisciplinary scientists sailed around the world and sampled ocean microbes at 210 different sites.

Having access to those data, Doblin said, allowed her team to show that their finding was significant. “It allowed us to really establish that this organism is really quite abundant, and widely distributed.”

—Nancy Averett (@nancyaverett), Science Writer

Citation: Averett, N. (2022), The ocean is still sucking up carbon—maybe more than we think, Eos, 103, https://doi.org/10.1029/2022EO220220. Published on 3 May 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.
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John Tillman
May 7, 2022 2:08 pm

“The science” is so unsettled that all the CO2 sources and sinks are not even known.

Reply to  John Tillman
May 7, 2022 2:31 pm

Apart from those carbon sucking creatures mentioned here there is in fact an unending capacity from the oceans to absorb carbon. The increase of CO2 in the air probably has more to do with the decrease in the sink areas in the arctic and the decrease of the pH of the oceans than us driving our cars and having barbecues.

DJ in Del
Reply to  HenryP
May 8, 2022 7:20 am

“ … and the decrease of the pH of the oceans“
The potential pH shift seen in pure water under lab conditions is well documented, but doesn’t begin to describe the salt water oceans. Every mineral in the ocean ‘salt’ is competing for the bicarbonate ions. The ocean does not have a pH per se, rather a pK from the combined activity of the competing cations.

On top of that, all the biological processes are consuming the CO2 dissolved ions; removing them from the pH/pK equation.

Oddgeir
Reply to  DJ in Del
May 8, 2022 10:37 am

“The potential pH shift seen in pure water under lab conditions is well documented, but doesn’t begin to describe the salt water oceans.”

Excellent argument! Let me add to that:

Under lab conditions, also “sea water” has been used to calculate pH. That “seawater” is made up of de-ionized freshwater with lab quality sodium chloride added to it.

Which makes a sterile brine.

It certainly does not make any seawater with all it’s carbonate species and calcium to react chemically with any CO2 additions, not to mention LIFE in abundance.

Oddgeir

Reply to  Oddgeir
May 9, 2022 7:58 am

The synthetic seawater used in labs is not a
“sterile brine” this is a more typical composition:

3.1. Components of Substance or Mixture
Chemical Name Formula Molecular Weight CAS Number Weight%
Water H2O 18.01 g/mol 7732-18-5 95.87%
Sodium Chloride NaCl 58.44 g/mol 7647-14-5 2.39%
Magnesium Chloride Hexahydrate MgCl2·6H2O 203.30 g/mol 7791-18-6 1.08%
Sodium Sulfate Anhydrous Na2SO4 142.04 g/mol 7757-82-6 0.40%
Calcium Chloride Dihydrate CaCl2·2H2O 147.02 g/mol 10035-04-8 0.15%
Potassium Chloride KCl 74.55 g/mol 7447-40-7 0.07%
Sodium Bicarbonate NaHCO3 84.00 g/mol 144-55-8 0.02%
Potassium Bromide KBr 119.00 g/mol 7758-02-3 0.01%
Strontium Chloride Hexahydrate SrCl2·6H2O 266.62 g/mol 10025-70-4 0.00%
Boric Acid H3BO3 61.83 g/mol 10043-35-3 0.00%
Sodium Fluoride NaF 41.98 g/mol 7681-49-4 0.00%
Sodium Hydroxide NaOH 39.99 g/mol 1310-73-2 0.00%

Oddgeir
Reply to  Phil.
May 10, 2022 1:56 pm

Seems “scientists” have developed the “seawater”. It’s still a sterile brine.

Oddgeir

Reply to  John Tillman
May 7, 2022 4:04 pm

Yes, exactly right…the science is not at all well known despite what the ‘experts’ would have us believe. We have no idea how all this climate stuff works on a global scale extending over the eons.

Reply to  Alastair Brickell
May 8, 2022 10:26 am

I recently read that only 20% of the ocean floor has been mapped…that is over 1/2 of the earth’s surface un-mapped. We have mapped the moon and Mars.

menace
Reply to  Anti_griff
May 10, 2022 1:43 pm

I guess it depends on what you mean by “mapped”. On a global scale the depth of the oceans appears to be pretty well quantified…

http://onemanz.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ocean_floor_map_300.jpg

to the order of 1km resolution.

The 20% figure is with respect to recent initiative to achieve 100 m resolution…

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53119686

an order of magnitude improvement, but still not even within an order of magnitude of surface map resolutions

commieBob
Reply to  John Tillman
May 7, 2022 7:17 pm

I was going to reply that the increased plant life during the satellite era was changing the size of an important sink on an ongoing basis. Since the CO2 budgets pretend that all the sinks and sources never change, that makes them wrong. While I was trying to find a paper I had seen, that said that, I stumbled on this:

The one-sided political treatment of CO₂ as a pollutant that should be radically reduced must be corrected in light of the indisputable scientific evidence that it is essential to life on Earth.

link

Human emissions of CO₂ have restored a balance to the global carbon cycle, thereby ensuring the long-term continuation of life on Earth.

The day will come when humanity tries to increase atmospheric CO2 to prevent mass extinction.

Reply to  commieBob
May 7, 2022 11:40 pm

Thank you Bob – isn’t it amazing how the woke left gets everything so backwards, so wrong. Atmospheric CO2 is not dangerously high, it is dangerously low for the continued survival of life on Earth. During the last Ice Age, CO2 declined so low that terrestrial plant life was close to being extinguished.

In 2016 Patrick Moore wrote an excellent paper on CO2 starvation.
https://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/moore-positive-impact-of-human-co2-emissions.pdf

I posted this similar note circa 2009 but did not keep a link – here it is from 2012.
https://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/30/north-american-energy-independence-by-2020/#comment-889468
[excerpt]

(Plant) Food for Thought:
 
One reasonable scenario for the end of life on Earth is insufficient atmospheric CO2 to support photosynthesis, as CO2 is permanently sequestered in carbonate rocks, hydrocarbons, coals, etc.
 
Since life on Earth could actually end due to CO2 starvation, should we be paying energy companies to burn fossil fuels to increase atmospheric CO2, instead of fining them due to the false belief that CO2 from fossil fuel combustion causes catastrophic global warming?
 
Could T.S. Eliot have been thinking about CO2 starvation when he wrote:
“This is the way the world ends
 Not with a bang but a whimper.”
 
Regards, Allan 🙂

Last edited 16 days ago by Allan MacRae
Rud Istvan
May 7, 2022 2:27 pm

While this is interesting, it does not even note the biggest and most permanent ocean carbon sink, calcifiying phytoplankton like coccoliths, or calcifying bivalve larvae.

All those thick marine limestone deposits are way more important AND permanent than the organic carbon ‘rain’ discussed in these papers—which ‘rain’ under anoxic conditions forms kerogen shales which become the basis for crude oil and natural gas if they reach sufficient temperature and pressure in the oil and gas ‘cooking windows’. The vast US Green River ‘oil shale’ is actually a still uncooked kerogen shale formed about 55mya.

Scissor
Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 7, 2022 3:49 pm

I just missed the Colorado shale oil boom but I seem to recall that reserves were on the order of 50 years of global oil consumption. In addition, there is potential to produce hundreds of millions of tons of ammonium sulfate and even some phosphate fertilizers.

No one had really figured out an economical process, however, but of the modern players, TOSCO survived and became part of Phillips Petroleum in the early 2000’s.

Mad Max Oil could probably make usable diesel fuel from scrounged equipment in the area.

I don’t know how different Jordanian oil shale is, but this extraction process looks interesting.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378382011002207

Last edited 17 days ago by Scissor
Pathway
Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 8, 2022 9:26 am

The Piceance Basin alone holds 1,500,000,000 barrels of karogen.

Walter Sobchak
May 7, 2022 2:31 pm

Life wins out. The planet can live with and thrive on all sorts of conditions. Life evolved when the planet was much warmer and had a lot more CO2 than the most dire predictions of the video gamers who fraudulently call themselves “climate scientists”.

Reality 1 Climate Science 0 — Game, Set, and Match

Peter W
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
May 7, 2022 4:46 pm

Also keep in mind the fact that the ability of water to retain CO2 is a function of it’s temperature. Keep in mind how your carbonated beverage goes flat as it warms. Ii was warmer a few thousand years ago than it is today. And no, the earth’s temperature has not changed enough to come anywhere near explaining the increase in CO2.

Also recall that fear-mongering book “The Population Bomb” in the 1960’s which predicted mass starvation as we would be unable to feed the growing mass of people. The increase in plant growth due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 took care of that fear-mongering.

Mike Lowe
May 7, 2022 2:53 pm

Another reason to think that Carbon Dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is largely a natural process! Surprise, surprise!

May 7, 2022 3:02 pm

However, because higher ocean temperatures cause greater stratification of these layers…

Now, two studies have shown the limits of such models. One found evidence that phytoplankton may become more efficient as the ocean warms.

​​“We often view the response of ocean carbon cycling to global warming as an on-off switch, but these results show it’s a dimmer switch …”

When one evidence-free and utterly wrong hypothesis fails, its failure is immediately explained by another equally stupid and baseless hypothesis. This is not a path to knowledge of any kind. This simply shows contempt of and total failure to understand the basics of oceanography and primary production.

Rud Istvan
Reply to  Phil Salmon
May 7, 2022 3:30 pm

Two problems with the stratification comment.
First, as ARGO shows, there is almost none (either salinity or temp) below about 750 meters. That is why ARGO ‘parks’ at 1000 before descending to 2000 for calibration.
Second, above 750 meters in the thermocline there is not only turbulent mixing in the photic zone, there is much current mixing below that surface zone.

Conceptual ‘bathtub’ models do NOT work in a real turbulent ocean beset by tides, currents, storms…

H. D. Hoese
May 7, 2022 3:07 pm

We have a U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms, haven’t seen one for Beneficial Algal Blooms. Maybe NASA — https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2015/26jun_algae

Michael ElliottMichael Elliott
Reply to  H. D. Hoese
May 7, 2022 4:16 pm

While this is very interesting , it will not make any difference.

The Green blob appears to be well financed, so just like the late Dr.Gobbles said, ” Tell a lie often enough, then it becomes the truth”.

The Politicians will continue to chase down every vote. It does not matter to them of its good or bad for the economy, all they think about is to win or retain that seat in Parliament.

What will cause change is when the lights start to go out..

Michael VK5ELL

Linda Goodman
May 7, 2022 4:39 pm

Give the carbon fraud legitimacy much?

Dariusz
May 7, 2022 5:51 pm

Co2 not carbon. Don’t make simple mistakes like the lefties do.

Rhoda R.
Reply to  Dariusz
May 7, 2022 7:17 pm

Very valid point. The lefties are desperate to equate CO2 with soot in the minds of people so they can validate their ‘pollution’ claim/scare tactic.

Chris*
May 7, 2022 10:08 pm

It has been shown that massive fires ie Australian bush fires put mega tonnes of ash and Co2 into the atmosphere. The ash fell into the oceans, thus providing nutrients for the phytoplankton. Phytoplankton quickly reproduces and takes CO2 from the atmosphere and expels O2. Phytoplankton is the keystone for all food chains in the oceans.
After the Australian bushfires three years ago, researchers found that within eight months the phytoplankton had removed 70% of the CO2 released by the fires. Two massive “islands ” of phytoplankton had formed one in the Pacific and the other in the Southern Ocean.

Oddgeir
Reply to  Chris*
May 8, 2022 10:47 am

As it F/U the climate change narrative, that sounds to amount to “harmful algeal blooms”, hehe?

Oddgeir

dk_
May 7, 2022 11:09 pm

Inside the mucosphere are a variety of microbes (including carbon), she said, and because the mucosphere is “negatively buoyant,” it sinks.

Many have noted that certain specific politicians are frequently quite closely related to bacteria, and perhaps suspended in mucus, but who knew that carbon is a microbe?

William Hepfer
Reply to  dk_
May 8, 2022 6:45 am

Carbon is certainly not a microbe. It’s an atom one of the basic elements.

Ulric Lyons
May 8, 2022 3:22 am

The AMO is always warmer during centennial solar minima:

“Uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the subpolar North Atlantic Ocean declined rapidly between 1990 and 2006. This reduction in carbon dioxide uptake was related to warming at the sea surface…”

https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo1680

Lil-Mike
May 8, 2022 6:17 am

​​“We often view the response of ocean carbon cycling to global warming as an on-off switch, but these results show it’s a dimmer switch and has some flexibility to take care of itself,” said Mike Lomas, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine and lead author of the first study, published in Nature Communications.

I find it disturbing that a biologist, a ‘senior research scientist’ or that even any natural science worker thinks—life-forms, populations operate, or especially evolve—in binary terms i.e. ‘on/off’.

The kind of thinking which leads to thinking evolution has a destination.

Oddgeir
Reply to  Lil-Mike
May 8, 2022 10:53 am

Also an excellent comment.

The on-off does off course not exist. It is a fine-tuned and delicate balance determined by all sorts of variables moving up or down the “efficiency chain” (variability slope), with an unknown number of such variables but some big ones being changes in temperatures, pH, concentration of contaminants, salinity for starters.

Oddgeir

Oddgeir
May 8, 2022 10:29 am

Blah-blah-blah.

No it i NOT. Reference to Henry, Dalton: For a fraction of a Kelvin change in ocean temperature, the CO2 solubility and partial pressures, all else the same, change dramatically.

Our oceans are STILL releasing carbon. Use Henry, Dalton to calculate how much for (say) 0.1 Kelvin.

Disregarding the fact that live matter flourish and multiply and actually sequester more carbon than during colder times, no amount of ENOUGH WITH THE BLAH-BLAH misrepresentation, misleading and confusing nonsense can hide that.

Do the math. 0.1 degree temperature increase will provide more than enough CO2 release to explain more than 100ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration increase.

Unless off course… Henry, Dalton are climate change deniers and their science is fake.

Oddgeir

ResourceGuy
May 8, 2022 11:40 am

Does work on a larger scale with agenda enviros?

Gerald Hanner
May 8, 2022 2:20 pm

The furor over these recently discovered phenomena leaves us with no knowledge of the long term effects of carbon sequestration — not even if it has negative consequences at all. To sit and stew over a whole process you know next to nothing about is absurd.

aaron
May 9, 2022 12:15 pm

I am far more afraid that we cannot sustain adequate emissions than I am of climate change. Sinks are increasing faster than emissions. Previous interglacials were warmer, CO2 & CH4 did not increase despite much more thawing of permafrost & warmer oceans.

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