A research team of University of Maine and Oregon State University scientists explore the relationship between phytoplankton and carbon storage in the ocean in this May 2021 photo. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine School of Marine Sciences

University of Maine researchers have set out on a voyage into the North Atlantic Ocean to better understand the role that phytoplankton play in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

This research will help to show how much carbon from the atmosphere stays in the ocean, and the role that carbon stored in the ocean will have on current and future climate change.

The team of researchers have traveled into the North Atlantic Ocean for a month-long research trip, where they are studying a phytoplankton bloom located west of the United Kingdom in order to understand how much carbon these organisms help to store in the ocean. The researchers will observe how much carbon the phytoplankton absorb, and then analyze how much of the carbon stored in the phytoplankton is transferred to the deep ocean.

Some organisms, like phytoplankton, can take carbon dioxide and turn it into a stable organic compound in a process called carbon fixing. Carbon fixing allows carbon to be transported to the deep ocean, where it is stored and does not get recycled into the environment or the atmosphere.

“The export of biological carbon into the deep sea is a key part of Earth’s climate, and this overall research effort is the first to characterize all of its component processes and relate them to satellite observations,” Margaret Estapa, an assistant professor of chemical oceanography, said.

The research trip is a joint effort between researchers from UMaine and Oregon State University.

One team of scientists is analyzing satellite data that helps to identify phytoplankton activity in the upper level of the ocean. Another team of scientists is gathering information on the sea floor using robotic vehicles that capture carbon particles. The teams are working together to compare the amount of carbon that is transported from the upper levels of the ocean to the sea floor.

The project is co-funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation as part of the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing program.

This program helps to gather information on whether the visual appearance of the upper layers of the ocean can help scientists estimate the amount of carbon that is processed and transferred to the deep ocean. These estimates help drive research on climate change and allow scientists to produce more accurate data about the effects that carbon dioxide is having on climate change.

Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley, her puppy Percy and staying active in the Maine outdoors.