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Tiny gypsum crystals can make phytoplankton so heavy that they rapidly sink, transporting large quantities of carbon to the ocean's depths. Experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute recently observed this phenomenon for the first time in the Arctic. As a result of this massive algal transport, in the future, large amounts of nutrients could be lost from the surface waters.
When marine algae die, they usually float in slow motion to the ocean's depths. However, during an expedition with the research icebreaker Polarstern to the Arctic in the spring of 2015, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) discovered a phenomenon that significantly accelerates this transport: tiny gypsum crystals, which form during the freezing of salt in the porous spaces of Arctic sea ice, weigh down the phytoplankton like heavy ballast, pulling them to the bottom within a matter of hours.
Effect - Express - Elevator - Carbon - Mechanism
The effect is like an express elevator for the carbon they contain. "This mechanism was previously completely unknown," says marine bio-geologist Dr. Jutta Wollenburg, who discovered the phytoplankton lumps weighted down with gypsum crystals on the seafloor during the so-called TRANSSIZ expedition. Now, together with an international team of researchers, she has published an article in the journal Scientific Reports on this process. "The rapid export of phytoplankton could have a number of effects on the carbon cycle in and productivity of the Arctic, at scales that we cannot yet accurately predict."
Just like plants on land, during photosynthesis, phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide, which they use to produce high-energy glucose compounds. In this way, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Once the phytoplankton dies, it begins to sink. Yet only a small fraction actually reaches the seafloor. The vast majority of phytoplankton remains in the uppermost water layers where it is broken down...
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