Deep-sea corals reveal why atmospheric carbon was lower during the ice ages

Deep sea corals reveal that efficient nutrient consumption by plankton drove carbon sequestration in the deep ocean during the ice ages. Photo courtesy of Caltech.

By Robert Perkins, Caltech

We know a lot about how carbon dioxide (CO2) levels can drive climate change, but how about the way that climate change can cause fluctuations in CO2 levels? New research from an international team of scientists reveals one of the mechanisms by which a colder climate was accompanied by depleted atmospheric CO2 during past ice ages.

The overall goal of the work is to better understand how and why the earth goes through periodic climate change, which could shed light on how man-made factors could affect the global climate.

Now, an international team of scientists has shown that periods of colder climates are associated with higher phytoplankton efficiency and a reduction in nutrients in the surface of the Southern Ocean (the ocean surrounding the Antarctic), which is related to an increase in carbon sequestration in the deep ocean. A paper about their research appears this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It is critical to understand why atmospheric CO2 concentration was lower during the ice ages. This will help us understand how the ocean will respond to ongoing anthropogenic CO2 emissions,” says Xingchen (Tony) Wang, lead author of the study. Wang was a graduate student at Princeton University while conducting the research in the lab of Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences. Wang is now a Simons Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow on the Origins of Life at Caltech. The study used a library of 10,000 deep-sea corals collected by Caltech’s Jess Adkins.

Xingchen (Tony) Wang and Jess Adkins. Photo courtesy of Caltech

Earth’s average temperature has naturally fluctuated by about 4 to 5 degrees Celsius over the course of the past million years as the planet has cycled in and out of glacial periods. During that time, the earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels have fluctuated between roughly 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) every 100,000 years or so. (In recent years, man-made carbon emissions have boosted that concentration up to over 400 ppm.)

About 10 years ago, researchers noticed a close correspondence between the fluctuations in CO2 levels and in temperature over the last million years. When the earth is at its coldest, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is also at its lowest. During the most recent ice age, which ended about 11,000 years ago, global temperatures were 5 degrees Celsius lower than they are today, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations were at 180 ppm.

There is 60 times more carbon in the ocean than in the atmosphere—partly because the ocean is so big. The mass of the world’s oceans is roughly 270 times greater than that of the atmosphere. As such, the ocean is the greatest regulator of carbon in the atmosphere, acting as both a sink and a source for atmospheric CO2.

Biological processes are the main driver of CO2 absorption from the atmosphere to the ocean. Just like photosynthesizing trees and plants on land, plankton at the surface of the sea turn CO2 into sugars that are eventually consumed by other creatures. As the sea creatures who consume those sugars—and the carbon they contain—die, they sink to the deep ocean, where the carbon is locked away from the atmosphere for a long time. This process is called the “biological pump.”

A healthy population of phytoplankton helps lock away carbon from the atmosphere. In order to thrive, phytoplankton need nutrients—notably, nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron. In most parts of the modern ocean, phytoplankton deplete all of the available nutrients in the surface ocean, and the biological pump operates at maximum efficiency.

However, in the modern Southern Ocean, there is a limited amount of iron—which means that there are not enough phytoplankton to fully consume the nitrogen and phosphorus in the surface waters. When there is less living biomass, there is also less that can die and sink to the bottom—which results in a decrease in carbon sequestration. The biological pump is not currently operating as efficiently as it theoretically could.

To track the efficiency of the biological pump over the span of the past 40,000 years, Adkins and his colleagues collected more than 10,000 fossils of the coral Desmophyllum dianthus.

Why coral? Two reasons: first, as it grows, coral accretes a skeleton around itself, precipitating calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and other trace elements (including nitrogen) out of the water around it. That process creates a rocky record of the chemistry of the ocean. Second, coral can be precisely dated using a combination of radiocarbon and uranium dating.

“Finding a few centimeter-tall fossil corals 2,000 meters deep in the ocean is no trivial task,” says Adkins, the Smits Family Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science at Caltech.

Adkins and his colleagues collected coral from the relatively narrow (500-mile) gap known as the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica (among other places). Because the Southern Ocean flows around Antarctica, all of its waters funnel through that gap—making the samples Adkins collected a robust record of the water throughout the Southern Ocean.

Coauthors include scientists from Caltech, Princeton University, Pomona College, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, University of Bristol, and ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Wang analyzed the ratios of two isotopes of nitrogen atoms in these corals – nitrogen-14 (14N, the most common variety of the atom, with seven protons and seven neutrons in its nucleus) and nitrogen-15 (15N, which has an extra neutron). When phytoplankton consume nitrogen, they prefer 14N to 15N. As a result, there is a correlation between the ratio of nitrogen isotopes in sinking organic matter (which the corals then eat as it falls to the seafloor) and how much nitrogen is being consumed in the surface ocean—and, by extension, the efficiency of the biological pump.

A higher amount of 15N in the fossils indicates that the biological pump was operating more efficiently at that time. An analogy would be monitoring what a person eats in their home. If they are eating more of their less-liked foods, then one could assume that the amount of food in their pantry is running low.

Indeed, Wang found that higher amounts of 15N were present in fossils corresponding to the last ice age, indicating that the biological pump was operating more efficiently during that time. As such, the evidence suggests that colder climates allow more biomass to grow in the surface Southern Ocean—likely because colder climates experience stronger winds, which can blow more iron into the Southern Ocean from the continents. That biomass consumes carbon, then dies and sinks, locking it away from the atmosphere.

Adkins and his colleagues plan to continue probing the coral library for further details about the cycles of ocean chemistry changes over the past several hundred thousand years.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Princeton University, the European Research Council, and the Natural Environment Research Council.

The study, “Deep-sea coral evidence for lower Southern Ocean surface nitrate concentrations during the last ice age,” Xingchen Tony Wang, Daniel M. Sigman, Maria G. Prokopenko, Jess F. Adkins, Laura F. Robinson, Sophia K. Hines, Junyi Chai, Anja S. Studer, Alfredo Martínez-García, Tianyu Chen, and Gerald H. Haug, was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early edition the week of March 13, 2017. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1615718114

Article provided courtesy of Caltech

Migrating animals add new depth to how the ocean “breathes” (Nature Geoscience)

By Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications

The oxygen content of the ocean may be subject to frequent ups and downs in a very literal sense — that is, in the form of the numerous sea creatures that dine near the surface at night then submerge into the safety of deeper, darker waters at daybreak.

Research begun at Princeton University and recently reported on in the journal Nature Geoscience found that animals ranging from plankton to small fish consume vast amounts of what little oxygen is available in the ocean’s aptly named “oxygen minimum zone” daily. The sheer number of organisms that seek refuge in water roughly 200- to 650-meters deep (650 to 2,000 feet) every day result in the global consumption of between 10 and 40 percent of the oxygen available at these depths.

The findings reveal a crucial and underappreciated role that animals have in ocean chemistry on a global scale, explained first author Daniele Bianchi, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University who began the project as a doctoral student of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at Princeton.

Migration depth of sea animals
Research begun at Princeton University found that the numerous small sea animals that migrate from the surface to deeper water every day consume vast amounts of what little oxygen is available in the ocean’s aptly named “oxygen minimum zone” daily. The findings reveal a crucial and underappreciated role that animals have in ocean chemistry on a global scale. The figure above shows the various depths (in meters) that animals migrate to during the day to escape predators. Red indicates the shallowest depths of 200 meters (650 feet), and blue represents the deepest of 600 meters (2,000 feet). The black numbers on the map represent the difference (in moles, used to measure chemical content) between the oxygen at the surface and at around 500 meters deep, which is the best parameter for predicting migration depth. (Courtesy of Daniele Bianchi)

“In a sense, this research should change how we think of the ocean’s metabolism,” Bianchi said. “Scientists know that there is this massive migration, but no one has really tried to estimate how it impacts the chemistry of the ocean.

“Generally, scientists have thought that microbes and bacteria primarily consume oxygen in the deeper ocean,” Bianchi said. “What we’re saying here is that animals that migrate during the day are a big source of oxygen depletion. We provide the first global data set to say that.”

Much of the deep ocean can replenish (often just barely) the oxygen consumed during these mass migrations, which are known as diel vertical migrations (DVMs).

But the balance between DVMs and the limited deep-water oxygen supply could be easily upset, Bianchi said — particularly by climate change, which is predicted to further decrease levels of oxygen in the ocean. That could mean these animals would not be able to descend as deep, putting them at the mercy of predators and inflicting their oxygen-sucking ways on a new ocean zone.

“If the ocean oxygen changes, then the depth of these migrations also will change. We can expect potential changes in the interactions between larger guys and little guys,” Bianchi said. “What complicates this story is that if these animals are responsible for a chunk of oxygen depletion in general, then a change in their habits might have a feedback in terms of oxygen levels in other parts of the deeper ocean.”

The researchers produced a global model of DVM depths and oxygen depletion by mining acoustic oceanic data collected by 389 American and British research cruises between 1990 and 2011. Using the background readings caused by the sound of animals as they ascended and descended, the researchers identified more than 4,000 DVM events.

They then chemically analyzed samples from DVM-event locations to create a model that could correlate DVM depth with oxygen depletion. With that data, the researchers concluded that DVMs indeed intensify the oxygen deficit within oxygen minimum zones.

“You can say that the whole ecosystem does this migration — chances are that if it swims, it does this kind of migration,” Bianchi said. “Before, scientists tended to ignore this big chunk of the ecosystem when thinking of ocean chemistry. We are saying that they are quite important and can’t be ignored.”

Bianchi conducted the data analysis and model development at McGill with assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences Eric Galbraith and McGill doctoral student David Carozza. Initial research of the acoustic data and development of the migration model was conducted at Princeton with K. Allison Smith (published as K.A.S. Mislan), a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and Charles Stock, a researcher with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Read the abstract

Citation: Bianchi, Daniele, Eric D. Galbraith, David A. Carozza, K.A.S. Milan and Charles A. Stock. 2013. Intensification of open-oxygen minimum zones by vertically migrating animals. Nature Geoscience. Article first published online: June 9, 2013. DOI:10.1038/ngeo1837

This work was supported in part by grants from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative.