MOlybdenum in the Oceans ('MOO')

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


Our future ocean may look very different from today. Some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the burning of fossil fuels is taken up by the ocean surface and changes the acidity of seawater, while the warming associated with higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere is reducing the solubility of oxygen, leading to less oxygen available to animals deeper down. Changes in acidity and oxygenation have implications for a host of other chemical properties of the ocean and may have knock-on impacts on chemical exchanges with the underlying sediments as well as how organisms cycle carbon through the ocean. But while the climate system mostly involves physics and despite what most students may conclude from school: physics is easy, in the ocean, the dynamics of a wide variety of biologically driven and inter-linked chemical cycles are key, and these are far less easy to understand in full.

The geological record can help here, because almost everything that could possibly have happened to life in the ocean has happened at one time or another, from partially frozen 'snowball' conditions to something by all accounts more like a hot sulphurous soup. The rock record not only contains geochemical clues about the environmental conditions in the ocean during these events, but also information about how the marine organisms and ecosystems respond. Of particularly interest here are occurrences of intervals of widespread oxygen depletion ('de-oxygenation') in the oceans about 100 millions years ago when dinosaurs roamed the land. These de-oxygenation events are generally associated with climate warming, sometimes with biological extinctions, and always associated with the burial of large amounts of organic carbon in accumulating sediments -- carbon that formed much of the oil and gas we are burning today. Much further (some billion years) back, the oceans first became oxygenated in a series of steps that appear intimately coupled with first the evolution and spread to saltwater environments of photosynthesizing organisms, and later, the appearance of multicellular animals. The relationship between changes in oxygenation and key events in the evolution of life on this planet also demands a full understanding.

Our focus here is to gain a better understanding of how the degree of oxygenation of our oceans has changed in the geological past. To do this we will apply a variety of cutting-edge tools: from laboratory experiments, machines to measure the tiniest of differences in the isotopic composition of exotic metals in ancient muds, to computer models and quantum mechanical calculations. Specifically, we will be looking at the element Molybdenum, used commercially in specialist steel making and in catalysts. Molybdenum is relatively abundant in a well oxygenated ocean like we have today, but takes on increasingly more insoluble forms and is lost to the sediments as oxygen becomes scarce in the ocean. Different isotopes of Molybdenum differ slightly in how efficiently they are removed, giving us an additional way of reconstructing past ocean conditions. Computer models will play a central role in our work, as we have neither spare copies of our planet to experiment on, nor a time machine to allow us to get a direct picture of past conditions. Models will allow us to explore how the signature of past changes in ocean oxygenation are recorded in sediments (and hence in the geological record).

The result of our work on past ocean oxygenation will, when combined with improved understanding of how marine organisms and ecosystems evolved and responded through time, will lead not only to a better understanding about the co-evolution of life and the planet, but will also provide insights into the biological changes we might expect to see in the ocean in the future.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?:
Global modelers and palaeoceanographers will benefit from the provision of novel and powerful models global Mo (and isotope) cycling.
Postgraduate students will benefit through the targeted and interdisciplinary training and discussion workshop; training in global modeling and proxy understanding not available anywhere else in the UK. The project student will benefit from the interdisciplinary training provided by being part of a project with such broad scope; traversing geochemistry and isotopic systems, to sedimentary, and 1D process-based to 3D global scale modeling.
Industry will benefit from improved knowledge and understanding regarding the identification and reconstruction of the anoxic conditions associated with organic matter preservation and hence on petroleum source rock formation.
Future scientists will be inspired in multidisciplinary sciences. Sciences such as biology and physics have very different distributions of men and women as active participants. Our team will try and address the implicit bias against physics and maths amongst pre-GCSE and A-Level school girls and show how they can get involved in climate change modeling approaches to assess question of past and future global change.
The general public. will benefit from public science events such as The Bristol Festival of Nature.

How will they benefit from this research?
Global modelers and palaeoceanographers. We will ensure the provision of essential graduate (and beyond) training via a substantive training and discussion workshop on (modeling) global biogeochemical cycles and Earth system dynamics, with a focus on past anoxia and its proxy reconstruction. This workshop will serve several purposes and will also bring together modelers (from sediment column to global scale) with modern and paleo observationists. And it will juxtapose academia and industry - providing a forum to exchange ideas and share data regarding past ocean anoxia and associated marine biogeochemical cycles.
PhD supervision. The highest quality of (project studentship) postgraduate training will be ensured, not only through close support by some of the top researchers in their fields, but specifically through: conferences and scientific meetings, to present their findings and have opportunities for networking, graduate training and career development courses provided by the partner universities, overseas summer schools (e.g., SOLAS, Urbino), and interactions with the entire project team through frequent project meetings.
Future scientists. We will engage with potential future scientists, enthuse them about the future challenges while also informing them about future climate change risks in the ocean surrounding us.
Public science events. We will engage and help enlighten the general public by playing a major participatory role in existing annual science events, e.g., The Bristol Festival of Nature.
Publications. Papers published in the scientific literature as well as conference presentations will help disseminate findings and recommendations to modelers and other scientists. Results and findings will also be disseminated through more popular scientific literature and publications, e.g. IGP Newsletter, NERC News (Planet Earth), New Scientist, etc.
Model dissemination. We will ensure open and full access and description of the organic carbon burial model by publishing model descriptions, evaluation, and source code, in the open access journal 'Geoscientific Model Development'.
Description That the solubility of iron in the ocean -- a key nutrient for marine life (phytoplankton) -- may be controlled by the solubility of rust! (iron hydroxide).
Exploitation Route The marine iron cycle developed as part of the project has become a core component in the GENIE Earth system model and a number of publications, collaborations, and further research has arisen from this.
Sectors Education

Description ERC 'Consolidator' scheme
Amount € 2,000,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 05/2014 
End 04/2019