Carbon-eaters on the Black sea

August 3, 2012
acquired July 15, 2012

(Phys.org) -- This brilliant cyan pattern scattered across the surface of the Black Sea is a bloom of microscopic phytoplankton. The multitude of single-celled algae in this image are most likely coccolithophores, one of Earth’s champions of carbon pumping. Coccolithophores constantly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowly send it down to the seafloor, an action that helps to stabilize the Earth's climate.

This image of this swirling blue bloom was captured on July 15, 2012, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Note that the image is rotated so that north is to the right. scientist Norman Kuring of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center suggested the bloom was likely Emiliania huxleyi, though it is impossible to know the species for sure without direct sampling of the water.

Coccolithophores use carbon, calcium, and oxygen to produce tiny plates of calcium carbonate (coccoliths). Often called “stones” by researchers, coccoliths resemble hubcaps. During their lifespan, coccolithophores remove carbon from the air, “fix” or integrate it into what is effectively limestone, and take it with them to the seafloor when they die and sink or when they are consumed (and eventually excreted) by zooplankton and fish.

These micro-stones are thought to speed up the ocean’s biological pump, according to William Balch, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and a member of the Suomi NPP science team. Without this dense calcium carbonate ballast for sinking particles to the depths, less would be drawn down into the ocean. The net result would be higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

But as Balch points out, the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in our air could upset this biological pump. Excess carbon dioxide is making the ocean more acidic, which may change the conditions that promote coccolithophore growth. “Ocean acidification is highly relevant to coccolithophores,” said Balch. “We are trying to understand if it would slow the ocean’s biological pump by inhibiting coccolithophore calcification. If they can’t calcify, they can’t make their limestone plates that pull all the sinking particulate carbon to the seafloor.”

Explore further: From lemons to lemonade: Reaction uses carbon dioxide to make carbon-based semiconductor

Related Stories

Surprises from the ocean: Marine plankton and ocean pH

June 21, 2011

The world's oceans support vast populations of single-celled organisms (phytoplankton) that are responsible, through photosynthesis, for removing about half of the carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels – ...

Recommended for you

Multinationals act on ocean-clogging plastics

January 16, 2017

Forty of the world's biggest companies assembled in Davos agreed on Monday to come up with cleaner ways to make and consume plastic as waste threatens the global eco-system, especially in oceans.

How the darkness and the cold killed the dinosaurs

January 16, 2017

66 million years ago, the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs started the ascent of the mammals, ultimately resulting in humankind's reign on Earth. Climate scientists have now reconstructed how tiny droplets of sulfuric acid ...

Tracking Antarctic adaptations in diatoms

January 16, 2017

Diatoms are a common type of photosynthetic microorganism, found in many environments from marine to soil; in the oceans, they are responsible for more than a third of the global ocean carbon captured during photosynthesis. ...

Study tracks 'memory' of soil moisture

January 16, 2017

The top 2 inches of topsoil on all of Earth's landmasses contains an infinitesimal fraction of the planet's water—less than one-thousandth of a percent. Yet because of its position at the interface between the land and ...

Soil pores, carbon stores, and breathing microbes

January 16, 2017

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently studied how moisture influences soil heterotrophic respiration. That's the breathing-like process by which microbes convert dead organic carbon in the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.