Tag Archives: carbon

Molecular-level relationships key to deciphering ocean carbon

by Alan Flurry

From beach shallows to the ocean depths, vast numbers of chemical compounds work together to reduce and store atmospheric carbon in the world’s oceans.

In the past, studying the connections between ocean-borne compounds and microbes has been impractical because of the sheer complexity of each. Three University of Georgia faculty members—along with an international team of scientists—bring to the forefront technological developments that are providing scientists with the analytical tools needed to understand these molecular-level relationships.

Their perspective article appears March 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It focuses on dissolved organic matter, or DOM, in the world’s oceans as a central carbon reservoir in the current and future global carbon cycle.

“Dissolved organic carbon is an amazing and confounding molecular soup,” said Aron Stubbins, co-author and associate professor of marine sciences at UGA housed at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah. “It sits at the center of the ocean carbon cycle, directing the energy flow from the tiny plants of the sea, phytoplankton, to ocean bacteria. Though around a quarter of all the sunlight trapped by plants each year passes through dissolved organic carbon, we know very little about the chemistry of the molecules or the biology of the bacterial players involved.”

The carbon the microbes process is stored in seawater in the form of tens of thousands of different dissolved organic compounds.

Researchers thought they had a handle on how some aspects of the process works, but “a number of new studies have now fundamentally changed our understanding of the ocean carbon cycle,” said the paper’s lead author Mary Ann Moran, Distinguished Research Professor at UGA.

In the context of methodological and technological innovations, the researchers examine several questions that illustrate how new tools—particularly innovations in analytical chemistry, microbiology and informatics—are transforming the field.

From how different major elements have cycles linked though marine dissolved organic matter to how and why refractory organic matter persists for thousands of years in the deep ocean to the number of metabolic pathways necessary for microbial transformation, the article infers a scale of enhanced and expanded understanding of complex processes that was previously impractical.

The perspective article, “Deciphering Ocean Carbon in a Changing World,” was shaped in discussions at a 2014 workshop supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Microsoft Research Corporation. Moran’s research has been supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative.

Co-authors on the paper include UGA’s Patricia Medeiros, assistant professor in the department of marine sciences. Others involved are with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of California, San Diego; University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Oregon State University; Columbia University; The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland Washington; the University of Washington; University of Oldenburg, Germany; Sorbonne Universités; and the University of Chicago.

 

UGA Skidaway Institute scientists study dynamic Cape Hatteras waters

Sometimes called the “graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the large number of shipwrecks there, the waters off of Cape Hatteras on the North Carolina coast are some of the least understood on the U.S. eastern seaboard. University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Dana Savidge is leading a team, which also includes UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards, to investigate the dynamic forces that characterize those waters.

The four-year project, informally called PEACH: Processes driving Exchange at Cape Hatteras, is funded by $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Skidaway Institute will receive $1.2 million for its part.

Researchers Dana Savidge (left) and Catherine Edwards

Researchers Dana Savidge (left) and Catherine Edwards

Two opposing deep ocean currents collide at Cape Hatteras, making the Atlantic Ocean near there highly dynamic. The warm Gulf Stream hugs the edge of the continental shelf as it flows north from the tip of Florida.  At Cape Hatteras, it opposes a colder current, the Slope Sea Gyre current, that moves southward along the mid-Atlantic coast and breaks away from the coast toward northern Europe. As in the deep ocean, the cool shelf waters of the mid-Atlantic continental shelf meet the warm salty shelf waters from the south at Cape Hatteras.

The convergence of all of these currents at one place means that, after long lifetimes in the sunlit shallow shelves, these waters may export large quantities of organic carbon—small plants and animals that have grown up on the shelf—to the open ocean. Scientists have little understanding of the details of how that happens and how it is controlled by the high-energy winds, waves and interaction the between the constantly changing Gulf Stream and Slope Sea Gyre currents.

According to Savidge, the area is very difficult to observe because the water is shallow, the sea-state can be challenging and the convergence of strong currents at one place make it hard to capture features of interest.

“It’s difficult to get enough instruments in the water because conditions change rapidly over short distances, and it’s hard to keep them there because conditions are rough,” she said. “Ships work nicely for many of these measurements, but frequently, the ships get chased to shore because of bad weather.”

To overcome the limitations of ship-based work, the research team will use a combination of both shore- and ocean-based instruments to record the movement and characteristics of the streams of water. A system of high-frequency radar stations will monitor surface currents on the continental shelf all the way out to the shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream, providing real-time maps of surface currents.

“Measuring surface currents remotely with the radars is a real advantage here,” Savidge said. “They cover regions that are too shallow for mobile vehicles like ships to operate while providing detailed information over areas where circulation can change quite dramatically over short times and distances.”

Edwards will lead a robotic observational component in which pairs of autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders will patrol the shelf to the north and south of Cape Hatteras.  Packed with instruments to measure temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and bio-optical properties of the ocean, both shelf- and deep-water gliders fly untethered through the submarine environment, sending their data to shore at regular intervals via satellite.

To compensate for the notoriously difficult conditions, Edwards will take advantage of a novel glider navigation system she developed with students and collaborators at Georgia Tech that automatically adjusts the glider mission based on ocean forecasts as well as data collected in real time.

“Our experiments show that we can keep the gliders where they need to be to collect the data we need,” she said. “The best part is that we get to put the maps of surface currents together with the subsurface information from the gliders, and we can make all of this information available in real time to scientists, fishermen and the general public.”

The researchers will also place a number of moorings and upward-pointing echo sounders on the sea floor. These acoustic units will track the water movement while also recording temperature and density.  PEACH will focus primarily on the physics of the ocean, but the information the researchers gather will also help scientists more fully understand the chemistry and biology, and may cast light on issues like carbon cycling and global climate change.

“Everyone is interested in the global carbon budget, and the effect of the coastal seas on that budget is not well understood,” Savidge said. “For example, many scientists consider the continental shelf to be a sink for carbon, because there is a lot of biology going on and it draws in carbon.

“However, there are indications that the shelf south of Hatteras is both a sink and a source of carbon. This project may help clarify that picture.”

The project will run through March 2020. The remaining members of the research team are Harvey Seim and John Bane of the University of North Carolina; Ruoying He of North Carolina State University; and Robert Todd, Magdalena Andres and Glen Gawarkiewicz from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

UGA Skidaway Institute scientists conduct winter 26-hour sampling program

On the weekend of January 24th, a team lead by UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Aron Stubbins conducted the latest “26 Hours on the Marsh” sampling program on the bluff at Groves Creek on the Skidaway Institute campus. The project was designed to investigate how salt marshes function and interact with their surrounding environment—specifically how bacteria consume and process carbon in the marsh. The team collected water samples throughout two complete tidal cycles, during both the day and night.

The outdoor laboratory on the bluff at Groves Creek.

The outdoor laboratory on the bluff at Groves Creek.

Skidaway Institute's Zac Tait, Thais Bittar, Rob Spencer (FSU) and Aron Stubbins prepare for a sample collection.

Skidaway Institute’s Zac Tait, Thais Bittar, Rob Spencer (FSU) and Aron Stubbins prepare for a sample collection.

Zac Tait collects a water sample from a skiff tied to the bank.

Zac Tait collects a water sample from a skiff tied to the bank.

Thais Bittar and Zac Tait begin to process the water sample.

Thais Bittar and Zac Tait begin to process the water sample.

About a dozen scientists and students were involved in the project. “26 Hours on the Marsh” is supported by two grants from the National Science Foundation. The grants total $1.7 million that represent larger, three-year, multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary research projects into salt marsh activity. These projects bring together faculty, students and staff from UGA’s Skidaway Institute, the University of Tennessee, Florida State University and Woods Hole Research Center. UGA Skidaway Institute scientists include principal investigator Jay Brandes; chemical oceanographers Aron Stubbins and Bill Savidge; physical oceanographers Dana Savidge, Catherine Edwards and Jack Blanton; and geologist Clark Alexander.