Tiny Creatures in the Ocean's 'Twilight Zone' May Be Affecting Climate Change

Friday, 17 August 2018 - 11:27AM
Earth
Friday, 17 August 2018 - 11:27AM
Tiny Creatures in the Ocean's 'Twilight Zone' May Be Affecting Climate Change
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Image Credit: Pixabay Composite
Finding Nemo may have led you to believe otherwise, but the ocean doesn't go from the happy sunlit upper parts to the deep, dark nightmare land of anglerfish and hatchetfish right away—there's the bright, upper 'sunlight' zone, the dim ''twilight' zone, the dark 'midnight' zone, and finally—no joke—there's the 'abyss' zone. Fortunately for NASA and the National Science Foundation, who are conducting a new project called EXPORTS (which stands for 'Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing'), they'll mostly be staying in the twilight zone, which lies 650 to 3,300 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The goal of the project is to figure out how exactly carbon gets recycled by plankton—first by phytoplankton, which pull carbon out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis, then by zooplankton, which eat phytoplankton and then become food for bigger animals, like fish. Right now, scientists know that carbon is being sucked into the ocean by the plankton, but once it's there, it's unclear how much is returned when the plankton die and how much stays within the twilight zone. According to Heidi Sosik, a member of the EXPORTS team:

"It's a tiny fraction, a fraction of a percent of biomass that makes it deeper down in the ocean where the water stays away from the atmosphere for a long time, from decades to thousands of years. We have pretty good information that tells us these processes are happening, but we have much less information to help us to quantitatively assess their impact on things like carbon cycling and, ultimately, Earth's climate."

From the Atlantic current (which has been slowing down over the course of the past millennium) to Antarctic ice, there's a lot we still don't understand about the interplay between life, Earth's climate, and the ocean. According to Paula Bontempi, one of the team members on the project, EXPORTS will give us some insight into the forces at work in the sea: "The continued exploration of the ocean, its ecosystems and their controls on the carbon cycle as observed with advanced technologies by EXPORTS will provide unprecedented views of Earth's unseen world."

If Rod Serling was still alive, we like to think he'd be part of this project, too. After all, who knew the Twilight Zone better than him?

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