TECHNOLOGY

This daring robot is the wall in the deep sea


However, the amount of carbon sequestered can vary from ocean to ocean and season to season. In general, researchers do not have a good handling of the biological and chemical processes going on there. “The rover helps us understand how much of that carbon might actually make its way into deep-sea sediments,” says Chrissy Havard, a marine biologist at MBARI, who co-authored the new paper. “It’s our only view of how much carbon can actually be stored in sediments, versus how much is actually being consumed that is likely to contribute to deep-sea acidification.” (When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid.)

Here is a illusory example of one of the mysteries of carbon on the sea floor. In California, the Earth is warming much faster than the neighboring ocean, a difference that leads to the intensification of the monsoons. This may increase the flow of water to the top – the wind pushes the surface water away, and the water rushes from the bottom up to fill the void. This would bring in more nutrients that feed the phytoplankton, which thrive in surface waters, then die off and turn into marine snow. Between 2015 and 2020, for example, the BR-II fluorescent camera detected a dramatic increase in the amount of phytoplankton reaching the sea floor in large pulses. At the same time, his sensors detected a decrease in oxygen, which means that the microbes on the sea floor were busy processing a wealth of organic matter.

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This raises some questions for Howard. “Only in general has an area become more volatile in its food supply – it can take years of food to go down in a few weeks. So how does that change an entire ecosystem?” she asks. “The response of the animal community is almost immediate. They start consuming it immediately, there is no significant delay. The microbes are primed and ready to go.”

What does this mean for the carbon cycle? Theoretically, the more organic matter rains, the more it is sequestered away from the atmosphere. But at the same time, seafloor organisms that eat this extra buffet also consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which may acidify the deep water. And because the ocean is constantly sloshing around, some of that carbon may return it to surface waters and into the atmosphere. “We show that more and more carbon than would otherwise be expected is making its way into the deep sea,” Havard says. “The rover adds dimension to tell us that most of this carbon is actually taken up just below, not stored in the sediments.”

Are these very large pulsations of sea ice now a permanent feature in the deep waters off California, or is it an aberration? Using the benthic rover, scientists can gather the long-term data needed to begin providing answers. says Lisa Levine, who studies the sea floor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography but was not involved in this work. “An army of these devices could help us better understand biogeochemical changes — which are needed to improve climate models, ecosystem models, fisheries models, and more.” Rovers may also help scientists study the effects of deep sea mining operations.



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