Controls over Ocean Mesopelagic Interior Carbon Storage (COMICS)

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre
Department Name: Science and Technology

Abstract

The surface ocean is home to billions of microscopic plants called phytoplankton which produce organic matter in the surface ocean using sunlight and carbon dioxide. When they die they sink, taking this carbon into the deep ocean, where it is stored on timescales of hundreds to thousands of years, which helps keep our climate the way it is today. The size of the effect they have on our climate is linked to how deep they sink before they dissolve - the deeper they sink, the more carbon is stored. This sinking carbon also provides food to the animals living in the ocean's deep, dark 'twilight zone'. Computer models can help us predict how future changes in greenhouse gas emissions might change this ocean carbon store. Current models however struggle with making these predictions. This is partly because until recently we haven't even been
able to answer the basic question 'Is there enough food for all the animals living in the twilight zone?'. But in a breakthrough this year we used new technology and new theory to show that there is indeed enough food. So now we can move on to asking what controls how deep the carbon sinks. There are lots of factors which might affect how deep the material sinks but at the moment we can't be sure which ones are important. In this project we will make oceanographic expeditions to two different places to test how these different factors affect carbon storage in the deep ocean. We will measure the carbon sinking into the twilight zone and the biological processes going on within it. Then we will determine if the systems are balanced - in other words, what goes in, should come out again. We will then write equations linking all the parts of the system together and analyse them to make them more simple. At the same time we will test whether the simple equations are still useful by seeing if they produce good global maps of ocean properties for which we have lots of data. Finally, when we are happy that our new equations are doing a good job we will use them in a computer model to predict the future store of carbon in the ocean.

Planned Impact

COMICS will ultimately result in improved predictions of future ocean carbon storage, hence contributing essential knowledge for evidence based policy-making. This project has been designed to provide an immediate and direct benefit to the ongoing development of the NERC-Met Office UK Earth System Model (ESM) which is the UK's platform for future IPCC assessments. COMICS will establish a pipeline for new insights from our in situ work to be translated through into recommendations for novel model parameterisations for a key component of the global carbon cycle, which will then be incorporated in the UK-ESM. This will build on work currently funded under the NERC Process Based Model Evaluation programme, which is part of the UKESM development strategy. To ensure that the results from our observational programme are translated into practical parameterisations for climate models, Prof Colin Jones (Head of the UKESM project) will sit on our project advisory board.

In addition to the Met Office, we have engaged stakeholders in Cefas (an executive Defra agency) which is responsible for delivering evidence-based advice on marine management issues. Our proposed work on marine environment modelling and predicting the marine impacts of climate change are directly relevant to Cefas. COMICS will ensure a direct link to Cefas/Defra through the inclusion on our programme advisory board of Dr Robert Thorpe (Fisheries Scientist) who will also provide a route to policy makers via the Marine Climate Change Centre.

COMICS will contribute to the UK's international standing, and capacity building in developing nations. One output of this project will be computationally efficient new parameterisations for carbon remineralisation which can be incorporated into any suitable global biogeochemical climate model. COMICS thus has the potential to influence future climate models at the international level. We will also contribute to capacity building in developing nations by proposing researcher exchange programmes and mentoring development of early career researchers.

COMICS also includes a programme of public engagement activities, targeting both the general public and the next generation of marine scientists. These activities aim to increase awareness of the importance of ocean carbon uptake for regulating Earth's climate in an era of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

These goals will be achieved through a dedicated impact effort, through dedicated staff time from NOC's communications office and the COMICS programme manager, with input from all members of the COMICS team.

Our impact programme includes funds for: a targeted stakeholder event that will be held at the end of year 3 in London to present our results from the specific standpoint of policy makers; design and distribution of glossy literature aimed at stakeholders and the general public; development of a programme website including professional graphic design; development of display materials for public events, such as science fairs.

Proposed additional impact activities for which we do not request NERC funds include: a Royal Society scientific programme meeting to which both stakeholders and the broader academic community will be invited (to take place in year 4); a collaborative researcher exchange programme with South African colleagues via the Newton Fund; supporting development of early career researchers from developing countries through the POGO fellowship scheme; daily cruise blog from on board the ship; Twitter feed (#comicscarbon), including two live Twitter Q&A events during the cruises; articles aimed at the interested public in Planet Earth; editorial feature in a popular science magazine; regular media
releases associated with cruises, journal articles, events etc.

Publications

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Henson S (2019) Drivers of Carbon Export Efficiency in the Global Ocean in Global Biogeochemical Cycles

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/M020835/1 03/04/2017 31/10/2019 £1,523,219
NE/M020835/2 Transfer NE/M020835/1 01/11/2019 31/03/2022 £562,942