• Research has shown that oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through microscopic algae, that carry out photosynthesis and then sink when they die.
  • These sinking algae, along with the excretions of microscopic creatures that feed on them, are known as 'marine snow'.
  • Marine snow transports carbon into the oceans depths in a process known as a biological pump.
  • By improving their understanding of this biological pump, scientists can better predict how the ocean will respond to climate change in future.

New research sheds light on how oceans absorb carbon dioxide.

Oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through microscopic algae that carry out photosynthesis and then sink to the deep sea when they die. This sinking enhances the degradation processes, researchers have now discovered.

Oceans play a key role in the global carbon dioxide balance. This is because billions of tiny algae live there, absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and incorporating it into their biomass. When these algae die, they trickle down—along with the excretions of microscopic creatures that feed on them—as “marine snow” into deeper zones. About 1% of their carbon dioxide then lies buried in the seafloor for thousands of years.

Because this constant rain of marine snowflakes transports carbon into the ocean’s depths, experts call it a biological pump. It is driven by two opposing processes: the sinking of the organic flakes and their degradation by bacteria. Sinking flakes increase the flux of carbon to the depths, while bacteria decrease this flux by removing carbon from the particles.

Current ocean models assume speed of sinking and rate of degradation to be independent of each other. “But we’ve now shown that the degradation processes are enhanced by sinking,” says Uria Alcolombri from the Institute of Environmental Engineering at ETH Zurich, first author of the new study.

For their investigations, the researchers used a clever method: instead of tracking sinking particles in the sea, they put individual millimeter-sized alginate particles into a microfluidic chamber and then pumped artificial seawater through it. “In our experiments, the marine snow didn’t move through the sea; rather the sea washed around the marine snow. But the relative speed is the same,” says Alcolombri.

The researchers colonized the alginate particles with genetically modified, green-glowing bacteria. These broke down the particles much faster when water flowed through the chamber; the breakdown takes about 10 times longer in still water. This is because the flowing water washes away the degradation products, leaving the bacteria’s enzymes to get to work directly on the particles, without having to spend time on decomposing molecules that have already split off.

Drawing on these observations, Alcolombri and his colleague François Peaudecerf have designed a new model of the biological carbon pump that considers how the sinking influences the degradation of the marine snowflakes. The model calculations suggest two things: Firstly, that the enhancement of particle degradation due to sinking reduces the theoretical transport efficiency of the carbon pump twofold. And secondly, that much of the dead algae is decomposed in the uppermost layers of the ocean—which is consistent with measurements of real carbon flux in the sea.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The team’s research was not aimed at boosting the performance of the biological carbon pump: “We’re interested in gleaning a fundamental understanding of natural processes; we wanted to know how the biological pump works,” says Alcolombri. “For this is essential if we’re to predict more accurately how our oceans will respond to climate change”.

It turned out that the degradation rate of marine snow—and indirectly, the global carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere—is determined by microscopic transport dynamics. Which shows, once again, how even the tiniest things in the environment affect the big picture.