Ocean’s Role in Global Carbon Cycle Outlined in New Study

Mar 12, 2014 12:01 PM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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Researchers from the University of California Santa Barba have released a new study which details how ocean life affects global carbon cycle.

The team analyzed the life cycle of zooplankton and phytoplankton, which are usually found at the bottom of the ocean food chain, and "incorporated" their lifecycle into a novel mechanistic model for assessing carbon emissions from oceans around the world, according to University of California press release.

The researchers used satellite observations to drive their food-web-based model in order to observe how phytoplankton produces organic matter using carbon dioxide in the water.

"What we've done here is create the first step toward monitoring the strength and efficiency of the biological pump using satellite observations," David Siegel, director of the Earth Research Institute at UC Santa Barbara, said in a statement, according to the release. "The approach is unique in that previous ways have been empirical without considering the dynamics of the ocean food web."

Carbon can be found in the atmosphere and is also stored in oceans, soils, and the Earth's crust, according to NASA. Any movement of carbon between, or within, these reservoirs is called a "flux."

The researchers said oceans are a key component in the global carbon cycle "through their storage, transport and transformations of carbon constituents," according to the study.

"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."

Their results predict a global carbon export flux of 6 petagrams (Pg) per year, on average, according to the study. A petagram, also known as a gigaton, is equal to one quadrillion (1015) grams, which is an extremely large amount, around the equivalent of the annual global emissions of fossil fuel.

Fossil fuel combustion represents a flux to the atmosphere of around 9 Pg every year.

Their research was published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

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