New study shows North Atlantic's unique role in carbon sequestration

NOC scientists’ ‘groundbreaking’ findings on particle flux dynamics challenge previous assumptions about carbon sequestration and the ocean's role in climate change mitigation.

A particle trap used to collect material from the ocean floor. Credit: The National Oceanography Centre
In brief:
  • NOC's study at PAP-SO unveils that the upper ocean's ecosystem structure significantly influences carbon sequestration rates, challenging previous notions.
  • Discoveries shed light on the Biological Carbon Pump's intricate process, emphasising its vital role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and combating climate change.
  • Professor Lampitt underscores the importance of continuous ocean research, with PAP-SO providing invaluable long-term data crucial for climate change mitigation strategies.
In detail:

Scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have released groundbreaking research shedding light on the unique dynamics of carbon absorption in the North Atlantic.

The study, conducted at the Porcupine Abyssal Plain Sustained Observatory (PAP-SO), reveals a significant time difference in the rate of particles sinking to the ocean bottom and unveils the underlying factors behind this phenomenon. These findings are a crucial step in understanding how the ocean can play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change.

Situated approximately 300 miles southwest of Ireland in the Northeast Atlantic, PAP-SO has been collecting data since 1989. The observatory employs various instruments to record changes in the ocean environment, monitoring aspects such as atmosphere, weather, and the deep-ocean interior up to three miles below the ocean surface. The new research challenges previous assumptions about carbon sequestration and offers key insights into the upper ocean's role in the process.

The study highlights the importance of the ecosystem structure in the upper ocean, roughly the first 100 metres, in determining the speed of carbon sequestration. Small particles formed naturally in this region sink to the deep ocean in a process known as particle flux. Professor Richard Lampitt, Senior Research Scientist at the National Oceanography Centre and lead author on the report, emphasised, "This research shows the importance of ongoing ocean research."

Previously, it was believed that the rate of microscopic plant growth solely determined carbon sequestration. However, the new paper reveals that the composition of the ocean ecosystem itself has a disproportionately significant impact. Lampitt added, "Understanding the reasons why particle flux varies so much is crucial as we seek to understand the way it functions and develop ways to mitigate the effects of climate change in the future."

Over the past few decades, the ocean has played a crucial role in slowing down climate change by absorbing about 30% of all human-produced carbon emissions. The Biological Carbon Pump (BCP) process involves microscopic organisms from the upper ocean sinking to the deep ocean, effectively removing carbon from the atmosphere. This vital mechanism transfers approximately 10 gigatonnes of carbon into the deep ocean each year, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

As part of the PAP-SO project, a specially designed buoy with numerous sensors has been deployed at a depth of 3000m. The buoy, equipped with traps, collects sinking material into bottles every two weeks.

Scientists analyse these samples at the NOC, allowing them to detect changes, trends, and inform policymakers to develop effective climate change mitigation strategies.

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