Can you hear marine snow falling?

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


The global ocean plays a key role in our climate system by extracting and storing much of the carbon released by humans into the atmosphere, thereby buffering the effects of global warming. However, there are uncertainties as to how this important ocean-carbon sink may change in future, and critically a better understanding of the ocean-carbon system is needed to accurately predict the Earth's climate. A key driver of ocean carbon uptake is marine life: plants that live in the surface ocean convert the atmospheric carbon that is absorbed into the ocean into their body organic matter through photosynthesis. This organic matter eventually sinks to the deep ocean in the form of 'marine snow' where it can be locked up for thousands of years in seafloor sediments. Oceanographers typically use sediment-traps to capture and measure marine snow, however sediment traps can only collect data in one place on typically monthly timescales. The result is a severe lack of information about the shorter time and space scale variability of marine snow, making it difficult to understand the processes that mediate ocean carbon storage. In this project we will develop a novel method to repurpose standard oceanographic acoustic current meter data, typically collected alongside sediment traps, to estimate carbon fluxes at much higher temporal resolutions (hours). We will use backscatter data, also recorded by the acoustic current meter but normally disregarded as a bi-product. To test the method, we will analyse an exemplar data set collected in the Southern Ocean which consists of both sediment-trap and acoustic backscatter data. As well as providing carbon flux data at yet unresolved temporal scales, output from this project can be applied to a wealth of legacy acoustic data (e.g. current data records collected across the world oceans over past decades), greatly improving the global coverage of past and present carbon flux estimates. Ultimately, we will improve the ability to understand and predict the future carbon storage capacity of the ocean and hence the Earth's climate.


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