Oceans’ microscopic plants known as diatoms capture carbon dioxide via biophysical pathways

Diatoms are tiny unicellular plants — no bigger than half a millimeter — which inhabit the surface water of the world’s oceans where sunlight penetration is plenty. Despite their modest size, they are one of the world’s most powerful resources for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. They currently remove, or “fix,” 10-20 billion metric tons of CO2 every year by the process of photosynthesis. But not much is known about which biological mechanisms diatoms use, and whether these processes might become less effective with rising ocean acidity, temperatures, and, in particular, CO2 concentrations. A new study shows that diatoms predominantly use one pathway to concentrate CO2 at the vicinity of carbon fixing enzyme and that this continues to operate even at higher CO2 concentrations.

“We show that marine diatoms are super smart in fixing atmospheric CO2 even at the present-day level of CO2 — and the variability in surface seawater CO2 levels did not impact the gene expression and abundance of the five key enzymes used in carbon fixation,” says the group leader of the study, Dr Haimanti Biswas from the National Institute of Oceanography-CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), India. “This answers a key question about how marine diatoms may respond to the future increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.”

Centric diatoms

The plant kingdom has evolved a wide range of mechanisms for concentrating CO2 from the air, or water, and transforming it into organic carbon. In this way, plants convert CO2 into glucose and other carbohydrates, which they use as building blocks and energy storage. But these different mechanisms have varied strengths and weaknesses. Somewhat ironically, the only carbon-fixing enzyme, RuBisCO, is notoriously inefficient at fixing CO2 and hence plants need to keep CO2 levels high In the vicinity of this enzyme.

To better understand which mechanism diatoms use to concentrate CO2, Biswas and her collaborators, Drs Chris Bowler and Juan Jose Pierella Karluich from the Institut de Biologie de I’Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France, mined a data set from the Tara Oceans research expedition. The international Tara expedition collected marine plankton samples from around the world over several years (2009 to 2013). These included more than 200 metagenomes (which show the abundance of the genes responsible for the five key enzymes) and over 220 metatranscriptomes (showing expression of the genes for the five key enzymes) from diatoms of different size classes.

Biswas and her collaborators were particularly interested in how often the genes of five key carbon-fixing enzymes are present, and whether there were any differences in their abundance and expression levels depending on location and conditions. Across all of the samples measured, one enzyme was roughly ten times more abundant than any of the other enzymes. This enzyme — called carbonic anhydrase — is especially informative because it also confirms that diatoms are actively pumping in dissolved CO2 inside the cell, as opposed to biochemically transforming CO2 first.

The team also observed complex different patterns of the key enzymes’ gene expression, which varied depending on latitude and temperature. The researchers hope to learn more using new datasets from more widely-traveled future expeditions.

“So far, our study indicates that despite variability in CO2 levels, these tiny autotrophs are highly efficient in concentrating CO2 inside the cell,” says Biswas. “That’s the probable reason for their ability to fix nearly one-fifth of the global carbon fixation on earth.”

More information: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2021.657821/full

Potentially toxic plankton algae may play a crucial role in the future Arctic

As the sea ice shrinks in the Arctic, the plankton community that produces food for the entire marine food chain is changing. New research shows that a potentially toxic species of plankton algae that lives both by doing photosynthesis and absorbing food may become an important player in the Arctic Ocean as the future sea ice becomes thinner and thinner.

Microscopic plankton algae, invisible to the naked eye, are the foundation of the marine food web, feeding all the ocean´s living creatures from small crustaceans to large whales. Plankton algae need light and nutrients to produce food by photosynthesis.

A thick layer of sea ice – sometimes covered with snow – can reduce how much sunlight penetrates into the water and stop the algae getting enough light. However, as the sea ice is becoming thinner and less widespread in the Arctic, more and more light is penetrating into the sea. Does this mean more plankton algae and thus more food for more fish, whales and seabirds in the Arctic? The story is not so simple.

More light in the sea will only lead to a higher production of plankton algae if they also have enough nutrients – and this is often not the case. With the recent increase in freshwater melt from Arctic glaciers and the general freshening of the Arctic Ocean, more and more fresh and nutrient-depleted water is running out into the fjords and further out into the sea. The fresher water lies on top of the more salty ocean and stops nutrients from the deeper layers from mixing up towards the surface where there is light. And it is only here that plankton algae can be active.

Mixotrophic algae play on several strings

However, a new study published in the journal Nature – Scientific Reports shows that so-called mixotrophic plankton algae may play a crucial role in the production of food in the Arctic Sea.

When the spring sets in in the Arctic, the metre-thick sea ice begins to melt. Melt ponds on the surface of the sea ice bring so much sunlight into the underlying seawater that the mixotrophic plankton algae start to grow dramatically. During an approx. 9-day period, the plankton can produce up to half of the total annual pelagic production in the high-Arctic fjord, Young Sound, in northeast Greenland. Several mixotrophic algae species are toxic. Photo credit: Lars Chresten Lund Hansen and Dorte H. Søgaard

Mixotrophic algae are small, single-celled plankton algae that can perform photosynthesis but also obtain energy by eating other algae and bacteria. This allows them to stay alive and grow even when their photosynthesis does not have enough light and nutrients in the water.

In northeast Greenland, a team of researchers measured the production of plankton algae under the sea ice in the high-Arctic fjord Young Sound, located near Daneborg.

“We showed that the plankton algae under the sea ice actually produced up to half of the total annual plankton production in the fjord,” says Dorte H. Søgaard from the Greenland Climate Research Centre, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, who headed the study.

“Mixotrophic plankton algae have the advantage that they can sustain themselves by eating other algae and bacteria as a supplement to photosynthesis when there isn’t enough light. This means that they are ready to perform photosynthesis even when very little light penetrates into the sea. In addition, many mixotrophic algae can live in relatively fresh water and at very low concentrations of nutrients – conditions that often prevail in the water layers under the sea ice in the spring when the ice melts,” Dorte H. Søgaard explains.

Toxic algae kill fish

For nine days, the researchers measured an algal bloom driven by mixotrophic algae occurring under the thick but melting sea ice in Young Sound during the Arctic spring in July, as the sun gained more power and more melt ponds spread across the sea ice, gradually letting through more light.

The algae belong to a group called haptophytes. Many of these algae are toxic, and in this study they bloomed in quantities similar to those previously observed in the Skagerrak near southern Norway. Here, the toxic plankton algae killed large amounts of salmon in Norwegian fish farms.

“We know that haptophytes often appear in areas with low salinity – as seen in the Baltic Sea, for example. It is therefore very probable that these mixotrophic-driven algae blooms will appear more frequently in a more freshwater-influenced future Arctic Ocean and that this shift in dominant algae to a mixotrophic algae species might have a large ecological and socio-economic impact.” says Dorte H. Søgaard.

The researchers behind the project point out that it is the first time that a bloom of mixotrophic algae has been recorded under the sea ice in the Arctic.

More information: An under-ice bloom of mixotrophic haptophytes in low nutrient and freshwater-influenced Arctic waters.http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-82413-y

Record-high Arctic freshwater will flow to Labrador Sea, affecting local and global oceans

Freshwater is accumulating in the Arctic Ocean. The Beaufort Sea, which is the largest Arctic Ocean freshwater reservoir, has increased its freshwater content by 40% over the past two decades. How and where this water will flow into the Atlantic Ocean is important for local and global ocean conditions.

A new study shows that this freshwater travels through the Canadian Archipelago to reach the Labrador Sea, rather than through the wider marine passageways that connect to seas in Northern Europe. The open-access study was published in Nature Communications.

“The Canadian Archipelago is a major conduit between the Arctic and the North Atlantic,” said lead author Jiaxu Zhang, a UW postdoctoral researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Ecosystem Studies. “In the future, if the winds get weaker and the freshwater gets released, there is a potential for this high amount of water to have a big influence in the Labrador Sea region.”

The finding has implications for the Labrador Sea marine environment, since Arctic water tends to be fresher but also rich in nutrients. This pathway also affects larger oceanic currents, namely a conveyor-belt circulation in the Atlantic Ocean in which colder, heavier water sinks in the North Atlantic and comes back along the surface as the Gulf Stream. Fresher, lighter water entering the Labrador Sea could slow that overturning circulation.

A simulated red dye tracer released from the Beaufort Gyre in the Artic Ocean (center top) shows freshwater transport through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, along Baffin Island to the western Labrador Sea, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, where it reduces surface salinity.

“We know that the Arctic Ocean has one of the biggest climate change signals,” said co-author Wei Cheng at the UW-based Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Atmosphere Studies. “Right now this freshwater is still trapped in the Arctic. But once it gets out, it can have a very large impact.”

Fresher water reaches the Arctic Ocean through rain, snow, rivers, inflows from the relatively fresher Pacific Ocean, as well as the recent melting of Arctic Ocean sea ice. Fresher, lighter water floats at the top, and clockwise winds in the Beaufort Sea push that lighter water together to create a dome.

When those winds relax, the dome will flatten and the freshwater gets released into the North Atlantic.

“People have already spent a lot of time studying why the Beaufort Sea freshwater has gotten so high in the past few decades,” said Zhang, who began the work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “But they rarely care where the freshwater goes, and we think that’s a much more important problem.”

Using a technique Zhang developed to track ocean salinity, the researchers simulated the ocean circulation and followed the Beaufort Sea freshwater’s spread in a past event that occurred from 1983 to 1995.

Their experiment showed that most of the freshwater reached the Labrador Sea through the Canadian Archipelago, a complex set of narrow passages between Canada and Greenland. This region is poorly studied and was thought to be less important for freshwater flow than the much wider Fram Strait, which connects to the Northern European seas.

In the model, the 1983-1995 freshwater release traveled mostly along the North American route and significantly reduced the salinities in the Labrador Sea — a freshening of 0.2 parts per thousand on its shallower western edge, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and of 0.4 parts per thousand inside the Labrador Current.

The volume of freshwater now in the Beaufort Sea is about twice the size of the case studied, at more than 23,300 cubic kilometers, or more than 5,500 cubic miles. This volume of freshwater released into the North Atlantic could have significant effects. The exact impact is unknown. The study focused on past events, and current research is looking at where today’s freshwater buildup might end up and what changes it could trigger.

“A freshwater release of this size into the subpolar North Atlantic could impact a critical circulation pattern, called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which has a significant influence on Northern Hemisphere climate,” said co-author Wilbert Weijer at Los Alamos National Lab.

More information: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21470-3

Climate change has reduced ocean mixing far more than expected

The ocean is dynamic in nature, playing a crucial role as a planetary thermostat that buffer global warming. However, in response to climate change, the ocean has generally become stabler over the past 50 years. Six times stabler, in fact, than previously estimated–as shown by a new study that researchers from the CNRS, Sorbonne University, and IFREMER have conducted within the scope of an international collaboration.* Warming waters, melting glaciers, and disrupted precipitation patterns have created an ocean surface layer cut off from the depths. Just as oil and water separate, so this division of surface and deeper waters limits oceanic mixing, making it harder for the ocean to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, climate change has strengthened winds, which has thickened the ocean surface layer by 5 to 10 m per decade over the last half century. This has hindered vital access to light for most marine organisms within it. Published in Nature, these findings underscore the consequences of climate change and anthropogenic phenomena for the ocean, the life it harbours, and its capacity to remain a global thermostat into the future.

This work calls for reconsideration of the drivers of ongoing shifts in marine primary production, and reveals stark changes in the world’s upper ocean over the past five decades.

More information: Sallée, JB., Pellichero, V., Akhoudas, C. et al. Summertime increases in upper-ocean stratification and mixed-layer depth. Nature 591, 592–598 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03303-x

New research paper on overwintering zooplankton in the North Sea

New open access paper published in Progress in Oceanography Overwintering distribution, inflow patterns and sustainability of Calanus finmarchicus in the North Sea.

The modelled abundance (1000 individual/m2) of overwintering C. finmarchicus in the North Sea

Some of the highlights include:

•High overwintering biomass in Norwegian Trench and north-west North Sea shelf.

•Inflow accounts for 41% of North Sea biomass and drives interannual variability.

•Norwegian Trench and East Shetland Atlantic Inflow are important inflow pathways.

C. finmarchicus in the North Sea is not self-sustained but dependent on the inflow.

•Biomass carried by East Shetland Atlantic Inflow decreases over 2000–2016.

Abstract: Calanoid copepods are key taxa in the North Sea as they are the main food source for many fish stocks, such as herring, mackerel and cod. In this study we use an individual-based model for Calanus finmarchicus embedded in the NORWegian ECOlogical Model system (NORWECOM) to investigate important population parameters such as biomass and abundance, distribution and interannual variability of the overwintering population, as well as the inflow of C. finmarchicus into the North Sea from adjacent areas for the 2000–2016 period. The modelled spatial–temporal patterns of C. finmarchicus abundance is comparable with the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey data in the northern North Sea. The simulated annual mean biomass of C. finmarchicus amounts to 0.94 million-tonnes of carbon. High overwintering biomass appears in the Norwegian Trench as well as in the north-west shelf region of the North Sea. A decreasing trend in the overwintering biomass has been detected on the path of the East Shetland Atlantic Inflow (ESAI) over the simulated period. The inflow of C. finmarchicus biomass into the North Sea from the north constitutes on average 41% of the annual mean biomass in the North Sea during the simulated 17 years, and thus determines the interannual variability of the biomass. We conclude that the C. finmarchicus population in the North Sea is not self-sustained and is highly dependent on the inflow of C. finmarchicus from the Faroe-Shetland Channel and south of the Norwegian Sea. C. finmarchicus enter the North Sea via three branches of the North Atlantic current with variable depths depending on seasons and topography. Beside the western flank of the Norwegian Trench (carrying 57% of the inflow biomass), we suggest that the ESAI is also an important agent carrying 37% of the total C. finmarchicus inflow biomass through the shelf area into the north-west of the North Sea. The annual mean outflow biomass is larger than the inflow biomass (0.52 versus 0.39 million-tonnes carbon per year), which indicates that the North Sea serves as a feeding ground and growth region for C. finmarchicus. This study is a first step towards a better understanding and quantification of the exchange of C. finmarchicus between the open seas, coastal waters and the fjords.

Get the open access paper here:

Scientists complete largest global assessment of ocean warming impacts

A group of international marine scientists has compiled the most comprehensive assessment of how ocean warming is affecting the mix of species in our oceans – and explained how some marine species manage to keep their cool.

Martin Edwards from the University of Plymouth along with other researchers from the UK, Japan, Australia, USA, Germany, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand analysed three million records of thousands of species from 200 ecological communities across the globe.

Reviewing data from 1985 – 2014, the team led by Michael Burrows of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban showed how subtle changes in the movement of species that prefer cold-water or warm-water, in response to rising temperatures, made a big impact on the global picture. The findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change [https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0631-5], show how warm-water species increase and cold-water marine species become less successful as the global temperature rises. However, the study also suggests that some cold-water species, and fish in particular, will continue to thrive by seeking refuge in cooler, deeper water.

Prof Burrows  further added:

“For the period from 1985 – 2014 we created the equivalent of an electoral poll in the ocean, showing swings between types of fish and plankton normally associated with either cold or warm habitats. As species increase in number and move into, or decline and leave, a particular ecological community, the make-up of that community will change in a predictable way. While this may not sound like a big change, it has a considerable impact on species that may already be on, or close to, their maximum temperature tolerance. A gradual temperature change like the one we are witnessing is not going to cause extinctions overnight but it is affecting the success of many species, not least zooplankton such as copepods, which are crucial to the ocean food web”.

Prof Edwards said the truly global study looked at data from the North Atlantic, Western Europe, Newfoundland and the Labrador Sea, east coast USA, the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Pacific from California to Alaska. While the global warming trend was widely seen, the North Atlantic showed the largest rise in average temperature during the time period. This area of the North Atlantic is routinely monitored by one of the world’s largest and longest marine biological surveys known as the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey which provided some key observational data in the global study. The changes observed have been driven by a seemingly small but ecologically significant rise in temperature of almost one degree Celsius in some parts of the ocean since 1985, a rapid change in just three decades. These changes are having huge implications for the abundance and distribution of plankton in our oceans.



Climate-related changes in fish and plankton communities shown by changes in Community Temperature Index values from 1985 to 2015.

New open access research paper on plankton biogeography in the North Atlantic

New research paper: Plankton biogeography in the North Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas: Species assemblages and environmental signatures

Loïck Kléparski, Grégory Beaugrand and Martin Edwards

Ecology and Evolution 2021; 00:1-15. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.7406

Plankton biodiversity is a key component of marine pelagic ecosystems. They are at the base of the food web, control the productivity of marine ecosystems, and provide many provisioning and regulating ecological services. It is therefore important to understand how plankton are organized in both space and time.

Abstract:

Here, we use data of varying taxonomic resolution, collected by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey, to map phytoplankton and zooplankton biodiversity in the North Atlantic and its adjacent seas. We then decompose biodiversity into 24 species assemblages and investigate their spatial distribution using ecological units and ecoregions recently proposed. Finally, we propose a descriptive method, which we call the environmental chromatogram, to characterize the environmental signature of each plankton assemblage. The method is based on a graphic that identifies where species of an assemblage aggregate along an environmental gradient composed of multiple ecological dimensions. The decomposition of the biodiversity into species assemblages allows us to show (a) that most marine regions of the North Atlantic are composed of coenoclines (i.e., gradients of biocoenoses or communities) and (b) that the overlapping spatial distribution of assemblages is the result of their environmental signatures. It follows that neither the ecoregions nor the ecological units identified in the North Atlantic are characterized by a unique assemblage but instead by a mosaic of assemblages that overlap in many places.

Spatial distribution of total
plankton taxonomic richness in the North Atlantic

Get the open access paper here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.7406

Warming drives ‘fundamental’ changes to ocean.

Climate change has wrought major changes to ocean stability faster than previously thought, according to a recent study, raising alarms over its role as a global thermostat and the marine life it supports.

The research published in the journal Nature looked at 50 years of data and followed the way in which surface water “decouples” from the deeper ocean.

Climate change has disrupted ocean mixing, a process that helps store away most of the world’s excess heat and a significant proportion of CO2.

Water on the surface is warmer — and therefore less dense — than the water below, a contrast that is intensified by climate change.

Global warming is also causing massive amounts of fresh water to flush into the seas from melting ice sheets and glaciers, lowering the salinity of the upper layer and further reducing its density.

This increasing contrast between the density of the ocean layers makes mixing harder, so oxygen, heat and carbon are all less able to penetrate to the deep seas.

Long-term responses of North Atlantic calcifying plankton to climate change

Study on calcifying plankton and climate change published in Nature Climate Change

Abstract:

The global increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is potentially threatening marine biodiversity in two ways. First, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere are causing global warming. Second, carbon dioxide is altering sea water chemistry, making the ocean more acidic.

Although temperature has a cardinal influence on all biological processes from the molecular to the ecosystem level, acidification might impair the process of calcification or exacerbate dissolution of calcifying organisms.

Here, we show however that North Atlantic calcifying plankton primarily responded to climate-induced changes in temperatures during the period 1960–2009, overriding the signal from the effects of ocean acidification. We provide evidence that foraminifers, coccolithophores, both pteropod and non-pteropod molluscs and echinoderms exhibited an abrupt shift circa 1996 at a time of a substantial increase in temperature and that some taxa exhibited a poleward movement in agreement with expected biogeographical changes under sea temperature warming. Although acidification may become a serious threat to marine calcifying organisms, our results suggest that over the study period the primary driver of North Atlantic calcifying plankton was oceanic temperature.

more information: https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate1753