skip to main content

Title: Sinking flux of particulate organic matter in the oceans: Sensitivity to particle characteristics

The sinking of organic particles produced in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean forms an important limb of the oceanic biological pump, which impacts the sequestration of carbon and resupply of nutrients in the mesopelagic ocean. Particles raining out from the upper ocean undergo remineralization by bacteria colonized on their surface and interior, leading to an attenuation in the sinking flux of organic matter with depth. Here, we formulate a mechanistic model for the depth-dependent, sinking, particulate mass flux constituted by a range of sinking, remineralizing particles. Like previous studies, we find that the model does not achieve the characteristic ‘Martin curve’ flux profile with a single type of particle, but instead requires a distribution of particle sizes and/or properties. We consider various functional forms of remineralization appropriate for solid/compact particles, and aggregates with an anoxic or oxic interior. We explore the sensitivity of the shape of the flux vs. depth profile to the choice of remineralization function, relative particle density, particle size distribution, and water column density stratification, and find that neither a power-law nor exponential function provides a definitively superior fit to the modeled profiles. The profiles are also sensitive to the time history of the particle source. Varying surface particle size distribution (via the slope of the particle number spectrum) over 3 days to represent a transient phytoplankton bloom results in transient subsurface maxima or pulses in the sinking mass flux. This work contributes to a growing body of mechanistic export flux models that offer scope to incorporate underlying dynamical and biological processes into global carbon cycle models.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Nature Publishing Group
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Scientific Reports
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    To better quantify the ocean's biological carbon pump, we resolved the diversity of sinking particles that transport carbon into the ocean's interior, their contribution to carbon export, and their attenuation with depth. Sinking particles collected in sediment trap gel layers from four distinct ocean ecosystems were imaged, measured, and classified. The size and identity of particles was used to model their contribution to particulate organic carbon (POC) flux. Measured POC fluxes were reasonably predicted by particle images. Nine particle types were identified, and most of the compositional variability was driven by the relative contribution of aggregates, long cylindrical fecal pellets, and salp fecal pellets. While particle composition varied across locations and seasons, the entire range of compositions was measured at a single well‐observed location in the subarctic North Pacific over one month, across 500 m of depth. The magnitude of POC flux was not consistently associated with a dominant particle class, but particle classes did influence flux attenuation. Long fecal pellets attenuated most rapidly with depth whereas certain other classes attenuated little or not at all with depth. Small particles (<100 μm) consistently contributed ∼5% to total POC flux in samples with higher magnitude fluxes. The relative importance of these small particle classes (spherical mini pellets, short oval fecal pellets, and dense detritus) increased in low flux environments (up to 46% of total POC flux). Imaging approaches that resolve large variations in particle composition across ocean basins, depth, and time will help to better parameterize biological carbon pump models.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Sinking particles strongly regulate the distribution of reactive chemical substances in the ocean, including particulate organic carbon and other elements (e.g., P, Cd, Mn, Cu, Co, Fe, Al, and232Th). Yet, the sinking fluxes of trace elements have not been well described in the global ocean. The U.S. GEOTRACES campaign in the North Atlantic (GA03) offers the first data set in which the sinking flux of carbon and trace elements can be derived using four different radionuclide pairs (238U:234Th;210Pb:210Po;228Ra:228Th; and234U:230Th) at stations co‐located with sediment trap fluxes for comparison. Particulate organic carbon, particulate P, and particulate Cd fluxes all decrease sharply with depth below the euphotic zone. Particulate Mn, Cu, and Co flux profiles display mixed behavior, some cases reflecting biotic remineralization, and other cases showing increased flux with depth. The latter may be related to either lateral input of lithogenic material or increased scavenging onto particles. Lastly, particulate Fe fluxes resemble fluxes of Al and232Th, which all have increasing flux with depth, indicating a dominance of lithogenic flux at depth by resuspended sediment transported laterally to the study site. In comparing flux estimates derived using different isotope pairs, differences result from different timescales of integration and particle size fractionation effects. The range in flux estimates produced by different methods provides a robust constraint on the true removal fluxes, taking into consideration the independent uncertainties associated with each method. These estimates will be valuable targets for biogeochemical modeling and may also offer insight into particle sinking processes.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    The strength of the biological soft tissue pump in the ocean critically depends on how much organic carbon is produced via photosynthesis and how efficiently the carbon is transferred to the ocean interior. For a given amount of limiting nutrient, phosphate, soft tissue pump would be strengthened if the carbon (C) to phosphorus (P) ratio of sinking organic matter increases as the remineralization length scale of C increases. Here, we present a new data compilation of particle flux stoichiometry and show that C:P of sinking particulate organic matter (POM) in the ocean twilight zone on average is likely to be higher than the C:P ratio of surface suspended POM. We further demonstrate using a physics‐biology coupled global ocean model combined with a theory from first principles that an increase in C:P export flux ratio in the ocean's twilight zone can lead to a considerable drawdown of atmosphericpCO2.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Particulate organic matter settling out of the euphotic zone is a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide and serves as a primary food source to mesopelagic food webs. Degradation of this organic matter encompasses a suite of mechanisms that attenuate flux, including heterotrophic metabolic processes of microbes and metazoans. The relative contributions of microbial and metazoan heterotrophy to flux attenuation, however, have been difficult to determine. We present results of compound specific nitrogen isotope analysis of amino acids of sinking particles from sediment traps and size‐fractionated particles from in situ filtration between the surface and 500 m at Ocean Station Papa, collected during NASA EXPORTS (EXport Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing). With increasing depth, we observe: (1) that, based on theδ15N values of threonine, fecal pellets dominate the sinking particle flux and that attenuation of downward particle flux occurs largely via disaggregation in the upper mesopelagic; (2) an increasing trophic position of particles in the upper water column, reflecting increasing heterotrophic contributions to the nitrogen pool and the loss of particles via remineralization; and (3) increasingδ15N values of source amino acids in submicron and small (1–6μm) particles, reflecting microbial particle solubilization. We further employ a Bayesian mixing model to estimate the relative proportions of fecal pellets, phytodetritus, and microbially degraded material in particles and compare these results and our interpretations of flux attenuation mechanisms to other, independent methods used during EXPORTS.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Microbial community dynamics on sinking particles control the amount of carbon that reaches the deep ocean and the length of time that carbon is stored, with potentially profound impacts on Earth’s climate. A mechanistic understanding of the controls on sinking particle distributions has been hindered by limited depth- and time-resolved sampling and methods that cannot distinguish individual particles. Here, we analyze microbial communities on nearly 400 individual sinking particles in conjunction with more conventional composite particle samples to determine how particle colonization and community assembly might control carbon sequestration in the deep ocean. We observed community succession with corresponding changes in microbial metabolic potential on the larger sinking particles transporting a significant fraction of carbon to the deep sea. Microbial community richness decreased as particles aged and sank; however, richness increased with particle size and the attenuation of carbon export. This suggests that the theory of island biogeography applies to sinking marine particles. Changes in POC flux attenuation with time and microbial community composition with depth were reproduced in a mechanistic ecosystem model that reflected a range of POC labilities and microbial growth rates. Our results highlight microbial community dynamics and processes on individual sinking particles, the isolation of which is necessary to improve mechanistic models of ocean carbon uptake.

    more » « less