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NASA, NSF Plunge Into Ocean ‘Twilight Zone’ to Explore Ecosystem Carbon Flow

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A large multidisciplinary team of scientists, equipped with advanced underwater robotics and an array of analytical instrumentation, will set sail for the northeastern Pacific Ocean this August. The team’s mission for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to study the life and death of the small organisms that play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

NASA: A large multidisciplinary team of scientists, equipped with advanced underwater robotics and an array of analytical instrumentation, will set sail for the northeastern Pacific Ocean this August. The team’s mission for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to study the life and death of the small organisms that play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

More than 100 scientists and crew from more than 20 research institutions will embark from Seattle for NASA’s Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) oceanographic campaign. EXPORTS is the first coordinated multidisciplinary science campaign of its kind to study the fates and carbon cycle impacts of microscopic plankton using two research vessels and several underwater robotic platforms.

The research vessels, the R/V Revelle and R/V Sally Ride, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, will sail west 200 miles into the open ocean. From these seaborne laboratories, researchers will explore the plankton, as well as the chemical and physical properties of the ocean from the surface to half a mile below into the twilight zone, a region with little or no sunlight where the carbon from the plankton can be sequestered, or kept out of the atmosphere, for periods ranging from decades to thousands of years.

“By employing two ships we’ll be able to observe complex oceanographic processes that vary both in space and time that we wouldn’t be able to capture with a single ship,” said Paula Bontempi, program manager for Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry at NASA Headquarters.

Phytoplankton are tiny, plant-like organisms that live in the sunlit upper ocean. They use sunlight and dissolved carbon dioxide that enters the upper ocean from the atmosphere to grow through photosynthesis, which is one way that ocean organisms cycle carbon. As primary producers, phytoplankton play an important role in removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. When phytoplankton are consumed by plankton or die, their remains sink and some fraction of their carbon is exported to depth.

While the major export pathways of how carbon moves through the ocean are known, the magnitude of the carbon flows in the different oceanic pathways and their dependence on ecosystem characteristics are poorly known. Scientists on the EXPORTS team are investigating how much carbon moves through the ocean within the upper sunlit layer and into the twilight zone and how ocean ecological processes affect carbon fate and sequestration. This information is needed to predict how much carbon will cycle back into the atmosphere over what time scales, or how much carbon is exported to ocean depths.

“The carbon humans are putting into the atmosphere is warming Earth,” says Mike Sieracki, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “Much of that carbon eventually finds its way into the ocean and is transported to the deep ocean, where it is sequestered and will not return to the atmosphere for a long time. This project will help us understand the biological and chemical processes that remove the carbon, and establish a foundation for monitoring these processes as the climate changes.”

Seven years in the making, the 2018 campaign has been a huge undertaking, said David Siegel, EXPORTS science lead from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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