It is fitting that the deep seas kicked off the climate conference in COP26’s Green Zone. Ocean health is critical to our planet's health and our understanding of climate change, not only because it absorbs 33% of CO2 emissions that we produce, but it also helps to regulate temperature and is responsible for absorbing a staggering 93% of the excess heat produced during the present climate change cycle. It is no surprise that 2021-2130 is the UN decade of ocean science.
The ocean is at the heart of the climate solution and Chelsea Technologies welcomes an opportunity to explain why, and highlight the innovative science we produce to further science's ability to understand the marine environment, such as our Single Turnover Active Fluorometer (STAF) LabSTAF instrumentation to measure, monitor and detect Phytoplankton.
Why does Phytoplankton matter regarding climate change?
Seen from space, earth is unquestionably an ocean planet; a beautiful blue marble serenely floating in a cold empty void. Standing at any shore, the big blue appears endless and even somewhat empty, filled with nothing but water. But below the surface, the ocean is in fact brimming with microscopic plants called Phytoplankton. If you were to take an empty glass and scoop up some water from the shore, in that glass you would have between 75-100 million Phytoplankton.
Phytoplankton are the foundation of the aquatic food web, the primary producers, feeding everything from microscopic, animal-like zooplankton to the largest creature on earth, multi-ton whales. Small fish and invertebrates also graze on these plant-like organisms, and then those smaller animals are in turn eaten by bigger ones.
“Phytoplankton are the foundation of the aquatic food web, the primary producers”
Phytoplankton can also be the harbingers of death – some species of Phytoplankton produce powerful biotoxins, making them responsible for harmful algal blooms “red tides“. These toxic blooms can kill marine life and people who eat contaminated seafood. Phytoplankton also cause mass mortality in other ways. In the aftermath of a massive bloom, dead Phytoplankton sink to the ocean or lake floor. The bacteria that decompose the Phytoplankton deplete the oxygen in the water, suffocating animal life; the result is an ocean dead zone.
Climate change and the carbon cycle
Phytoplankton respond rapidly to environmental changes. During the past decade, researchers have discovered that global levels of Phytoplankton decrease as the ocean temperatures warm. Why? During the normal physical mixing process in the ocean, nutrients come up from the bottom. Phytoplankton are fertilized; they grow; the nutrients are depleted – and the Phytoplankton die or are eaten by something else. And this mixing process continues, ad infinitum. Anything that happens that slows down that movement of cold, deep water to the surface would stop the flow of nutrients, which would cause the Phytoplankton not to grow as well. Over the past ten years it has been discovered that large areas of the ocean have warmed up, which means is the surface water has warmed, and it has essentially put a cap on that mixing process crucial for all life on earth.
“The ocean is at the heart of the climate solution”
Over the past decade, science has focused in on this trend, and the studies already confirm that there has been a decrease in global Phytoplankton productivity. For example, ocean scientists documented an increase in the area of subtropical ocean gyres—the least productive ocean areas—over the past decade. These low-nutrient “marine deserts” appear to be expanding due to rising ocean surface temperatures. In UK waters, fish species are being affected by sea temperature increases and phytoplankton productivity is in decline. All these are discouraging signs, but there are options available to counter this trend: sea forestation, iron fertilisation and artificial upwelling, all mechanisms designed to encourage Phytoplankton productivity.
“Over the past decade, science has focused in on this trend, and the studies already confirm that there has been a decrease in global Phytoplankton productivity”
Through photosynthesis, Phytoplankton also consume carbon dioxide on a scale equivalent to forests and other land plants. Some of this carbon is carried to the deep ocean when Phytoplankton die, and some is transferred to different layers of the ocean as phytoplankton are eaten by other creatures, which themselves reproduce, generate waste, and die. Phytoplankton are responsible for most of the transfer of CO2 from the atmosphere to the ocean. CO2 is consumed during photosynthesis, and the carbon is incorporated in the Phytoplankton, just as carbon is stored in the wood and leaves of a tree. Most of the carbon is returned to near-surface waters when Phytoplankton are eaten or decompose, but some falls into the ocean depths. Worldwide, this “biological carbon pump” transfers about 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year. Even small changes in the growth of Phytoplankton may affect atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which would feed back to global surface temperatures.
How do we measure Phytoplankton?
Currently, Phytoplankton samples are taken directly from the water at permanent observation stations or from ships and measured in the lab using C14 processes. Sampling devices include hoses and flasks to collect water samples, and sometimes, plankton are collected on filters dragged through the water behind a ship. Samples may be sealed and put on ice and transported for laboratory analysis, where researchers may be able to identify the Phytoplankton collected down to the genus or even species level through microscopic investigation or genetic analysis.
Although samples taken from the ocean are necessary for some studies, satellite technology currently accounts for the majority of global-scale studies of Phytoplankton and their role in climate change. Individual Phytoplankton are tiny, but when they bloom by the billions, the high concentrations of chlorophyll and other light-catching pigments change the way the surface reflects light; the water may turn greenish, reddish, or brownish. Scientists use these changes in ocean color to estimate Chlorophyll concentration and the biomass of Phytoplankton in the ocean.
UK climate change research and innovation at COP26
As highlighted by a presentation by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) at COP26, talented people with bright ideas in the UK’s research and innovation system are now coming together to drive a new green industrial revolution.
“This revolution is powered by collective expertise and the determination to achieve net zero carbon emissions, live more sustainably and ultimately tackle climate change. These UK scientists, researchers and innovators, supported by UKRI investment, are creating new and exciting solutions to complex climate challenges. As well as technical solutions, their work provides robust, rigorous evidence to inform climate policy”
Chelsea Technologies is proud to be one such UKRI investment recipient with our STAF technologies, and our STAF research is set to revolutionise science’s understanding of the role primary productivity plays in climate change.
What are Chelsea Technologies’ Single Turnover Active Fluorometry (STAF) solutions?
Chelsea technologies’ Single Turnover Active Fluorometry (STAF) solutions provides a revolutionary new method to enable large-scale Phytoplankton assessment:
About Chelsea Technologies
Chelsea Technologies designs and manufactures environmental monitoring technology to make the world safer, cleaner and smarter. Across shipping, marine science, water quality, defence and life sciences, our best-in-class sensor and system solutions are trusted by environmental researchers, scientists and plant managers for their sensitivity, accuracy, reliability and sophistication.
Chelsea’s specialist expertise has been built up over 50 years, introducing pioneering technology to monitor water quality, gauge shipping emissions, explore the oceans, create healthier fisheries, optimize crop spraying, improve production efficiency and monitor climate change.