Research assesses how carbon is removed to deep waters in the Antarctic

Scientists at the University of Plymouth have been awarded funding by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to enhance their understanding of how carbon is regulated within the Antarctic.

Academics have been awarded around £425,000 for two four-year collaborative projects within NERC’s Role of the Southern Ocean in the Earth System (RoSES) programme, and will examine the presence and supply of iron, an essential trace element, in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. 

The Southern Ocean is a very important region for climate regulation, particularly as it is estimated to have captured around half the man-made carbon dioxide produced so far. The UK’s RoSES programme aims to substantially reduce uncertainty in 21st century global climate projections through improved assessment of the Southern Ocean carbon sink. 

The University of Plymouth projects will be led by Associate Professor in Marine and Analytical Chemistry Dr Simon Ussher and Lecturer in Environmental Science Dr Angela Milne, who have previous experience of conducting trace metal analysis in a range of ocean environments.

The results of their studies will contribute to providing year-round observations of what happens to carbon within the environment, and the sources of nutrients (such as iron) on which the marine ecosystem relies. Key findings will feed into international research aiming to understand the role of the Southern Ocean in regulating the global climate.

Dr Ussher said:

“The Antarctic peninsula is a very fragile environment, as highlighted recently with the break in the Larson C Ice Shelf producing one of the largest icebergs on record. But while we know the ice is breaking up we do not fully understand the effects that will have. By undertaking this biogeochemical research and developing our models relating to the carbon cycle, it should give us clues as to what we might expect to happen in future. It will also provide us with the scientific data to inform global policy, and enable us to prepare for some of the wider impacts of climate change.”
The two Plymouth projects will focus on different geographical regions of the Antarctic, where ocean circulation results in the removal of carbon to the deep ocean, known as ‘the upper limb’ and the ‘lower limb’. But both will use similar techniques including remote sensing, buoys, sea-going gliders and on-ship measurements during two scientific voyages between 2018 and 2020.

Dr Ussher added:

“People have taken measurements in these regions previously, but the challenge is to place them in the context of a 12-month period. Surveys have often struggled in that regard due to the hostile nature of the Antarctic winters, but it is only with that level of detail that we can better predict what will happen in the future.”

  • CUSTARD (Carbon Uptake and Seasonal Traits in Antarctic Remineralisation Depth) will receive £213,094 and launches in April 2018, running until March 2022. It will focus just west of the tip of South America and will use a combination of robotic vehicles and sophisticated new sensors. These will make new observations of how much carbon the ocean takes up and at what depth in the water column the carbon is then circulated into the global ocean, in this key ‘motorway junction’ of the Southern Ocean. 

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