Extraordinary Ocean Creatures Use Mucus to Help Remove Carbon and Microplastics
One of those animals is the giant larvaceans, which inhabit seas around the world. As the Los Angeles Times reported, an enormous balloon of mucus about three feet wide often surrounds these squishy tadpole-like animals, and researchers have recently discovered that they play an enormous role in helping the ocean remove planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
A study, conducted by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and published last week in the journal Nature, used a novel laser system to provide 3D imaging of the deep sea animals and their mucous filters. The term "giant" is a bit of a misnomer. The animals range in size from less than one centimeter in length to a maximum size of nearly 10 centimeters. Despite their insubstantial bodies, larvaceans remove vast amounts of carbon-rich food out of the surrounding water, according to a statement from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
When their mucus filters become clogged, usually every 24 hours or so, the animals release the mucus, which sinks rapidly to the seafloor — bringing down a significant load of carbon to the deep sea floor and locking it away from reentering the atmosphere. This process removes both carbon dioxide and microplastics from the atmosphere.
"Mucus is ubiquitous in the ocean, and complex mucus structures are made by animals for feeding, health, and protection," said Kakani Katija, principal engineer at Monterey Bay and the lead author on the new paper, in the statement. "Now that we have a way to visualize these structures deep below the surface we can finally understand how they function and what roles they play in the ocean."
The larvaceans use their tails to constantly pump water through two filters — as much as 21 gallons an hour. The scientists calculated that the ones in Monterey Bay could filter all the water between 100 and 300 meters deep in as little as 13 days — equivalent to about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools per hour, according to the Los Angeles Times.
That is increasingly important since scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet's biosphere resides in the oceans. Fishermen know its surface waters, but in general, compared to land, the global ocean is unknown, as The New York Times reports.
The oceans also play a vital role in trapping planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the earth's surface, have absorbed more than one-fourth of the carbon humans have produced since the Industrial Revolution, and about 90 percent of the resulting heat, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We're just on the edge of this tremendous change in how we perceive and understand how the ocean works," said Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn't be up here walking around with us. They'd be exploring the deep ocean." To take a look at just how giant larvaceans used their mucus to capture carbon and microplastics, the scientists scanned the strange animals with lasers mounted onto a 12,000-pound robot, and then reconstructed the mucus structure into a 3D model.
As The New York Times explained, the system works similar to a CT scan for the human body. It emits a thin fan of laser light that scans through the animals, gathers backscattered rays from the inner flows and tissues, and feeds that information into a computer that reconstructs the living organisms in subtle detail.
It's staggering," said Robison, as The New York Times reported. "It's going to open things up in a really good way."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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