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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research team kick off 6-month study exploring how marine life helps the ocean store carbon

Published: 21 May 2024
Credit: NOC
Credit: National Oceanography Centre (NOC)

An international team of scientists led by researchers at three research institutions (National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton and Heriot-Watt University) are set to undertake a 37-day expedition, on board the RRS Discovery, to help gain a better understanding of the role marine organisms play in storing carbon in the ocean.

The expedition will be followed by an intense six months of fieldwork using ocean robots and a second expedition in the autumn, to inform the next generation of climate modelling. The first expedition is due to leave from Southampton on Tuesday 21st May and head to the North Atlantic south of Iceland as part of the ambitious BIO-Carbon programme, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) . BIO-Carbon will help deliver the new understanding necessary to make robust predictions for how oceanic carbon storage may alter under climate change.

Scientists know that marine organisms play a critical role in storing carbon in the ocean that might otherwise remain in the atmosphere. However, recent evidence suggests that climate models are not fully accounting for the impact of potential changes in biological processes. This could hinder predictions of the ocean’s role in future carbon storage at a critical time.

Speaking about the first expedition of the BIO-Carbon Programme, Programme Champion, Dr Adrian Martin, said: “Scientists, business leaders and politicians are asking whether we can manipulate the ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the effect of climate change. We clearly need to understand the side effects first, yet we still lack basic knowledge of how marine life will respond to climate change even before we perturb it further. This expedition and the wider BIO-Carbon programme will deliver fundamental insights that will allow us to make robust predictions and informed decisions.”

Credit: NOC
Credit: National Oceanography Centre (NOC)

The expedition and programme seek to address three critical climate relevant challenges. Professor Stephanie Henson from NOC will use the expedition to gain a better understanding of how climate change will affect the rate at which the marine ecosystem uses organic carbon as a source of energy, in a process called respiration. In addition to using advanced cameras and robots to examine how carbon in dead organisms is consumed as it sinks, Stephanie and her team will deploy a new piece of equipment that acts like a freely drifting mini-laboratory, which will quantify the rate at which organic material is being respired in situ.

Credit: NOC
Credit: National Oceanography Centre (NOC)

Led by Professor Mark Moore from the University of Southampton, the second area of fieldwork will explore primary production, the process by which carbon is removed from the surface of the ocean and transformed into organic matter. Primary production supports virtually all life in the sea. By combining elegant experiments on board RRS Discovery with observations made by a fleet of robots and drifting floats throughout the year, Mark and his team will examine the relative importance of the availability of light and nutrients, as well as consumption by larger organisms, in controlling this key process.

Finally, fieldwork led by Professor Alex Poulton from Heriot-Watt University will gain a better understanding of how specific organisms, called coccolithophores, which build intricate ‘shells’ through a process called calcification, can affect the ability of seawater to absorb carbon. To do this, Alex and the team will undertake novel measurements and experiments at sea and use an innovative suite of new sensors on the ship, on ocean robots and on satellites to look at how viral infection and consumption by small animals influence coccolithophore “blooms”, often referred to as “white waters” or “white tides” by sailors.

To find out more about the BIO-Carbon programme and the fieldwork that is being undertaken, please visit:

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