Enhanced carbon export driven by internal tides over the mid-Atlantic ridge (CarTRidge)

Department Name: Science and Technology


Plankton in the ocean, microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and tiny animals (zooplankton) that eat the plants, are vital to marine life and to Earth's climate. They form the base of food chains that support ocean ecosystems, and remove carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in (or export it to) the ocean depths. It is currently thought that plankton are responsible for removing 6 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year; fossil fuel burning releases about 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere annually. Without this export of carbon in the ocean, atmospheric CO2 would be twice the current concentration.

The importance of plankton to food chains and carbon export depends on the species of plankton. Larger phytoplankton are better at supporting food chains and at exporting carbon because (1) larger phytoplankton sink quicker, removing carbon away from the sea surface and contact with the atmosphere, and (2) larger phytoplankton support larger zooplankton, which are eaten by fish and which also excrete large, fast-sinking faecal pellets which quickly transfer carbon away from the atmosphere.

We have discovered a new link between which types of plankton can grow and the tides flowing over a mid-ocean ridge. The ocean is layered, with warmer, less dense layers at the surface and colder, denser layers deeper in the ocean. When tidal currents flow up and down the flanks of a mid-ocean ridge, these layers are pushed up and down, causing waves on the layers called "internal tidal waves". These internal tidal waves reach up to the sun-lit upper ocean, where photosynthesis by the phytoplankton takes place. We think these waves have two important effects. (1) The waves cause mixing between the layers of ocean, bringing nutrients from deep in the ocean up to the phytoplankton; this will help extra phytoplankton growth, but crucially it is also known that extra nutrient supplies allow larger species of phytoplankton to grow. (2) The waves move the phytoplankton up and down; this provides more light to the phytoplankton, because as they are moved upward they get closer to the light at the sea surface and are able to grow more. Thus, we think that the internal tidal waves create more growth of larger plankton over a mid-ocean ridge, which means better food for marine food chains and more carbon exported away from the atmosphere.

This new link may explain why ridges support such diverse ecosystems, and it also means that the ocean over ridges is far better at exporting carbon than we previously thought. We have calculated that, for the whole Atlantic Ocean, including the tidal effect of the mid-Atlantic ridge adds about 50% to current estimates of how much carbon the plankton export. This means that current understanding of the ocean's role in Earth's climate, which ignores the ridge-tide effect, significantly underestimates how much CO2 plankton remove from the atmosphere. We need to fix this because our predictions of our future climate depend on having correct descriptions of the processes that govern atmospheric CO2.

We will conduct an expedition to the mid-ocean ridge in the S. Atlantic. We will measure the internal tidal waves and the upward mixing of nutrients, and the effect the waves have on light received by phytoplankton. We will measure how fast the phytoplankton and zooplankton grow in response to these waves, how the species of plankton change over the ridge, and how much carbon is exported downward over the ridge compared to the adjacent ocean basin. This will be the first time that internal tidal waves are linked to patterns of carbon export in the ocean: internal tidal waves occur wherever there are ridges or seamounts in the ocean and our results will have important global implications for our understanding of ocean food webs and Earth's climate.


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