UM Biological Station receives $9.5 million for ocean climate change research

MISSOULA – A new research project led by the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) extends the impact of the station’s renowned expertise from mountain watersheds to the depths of the ocean.

The project, called SUBSEA (Subtropical Underwater Biogeochemistry and Subsurface Export Alliance), is one of five global science and technology projects selected by the Schmidt Sciences Ocean Biogeochemistry Virtual Institute. The goal of the project is to fill gaps in ocean data and modeling efforts by improving the breadth of research and expanding the capacity to understand marine resources.

Led by Matthew Church, an FLBS professor of aquatic microbial ecology, the SUBSEA research team will receive $9.5 million over the next five years to refine the details of ocean carbon cycling and ecosystem resilience. FLBS aquatic ecology professor Bob Hall will also support the project.

“I am most excited about the collaborative opportunities presented by Schmidt Sciences' investment in our SUBSEA project,” said Church. “By bringing together an international team of scientists and cutting-edge tools, this project will enable us to study how plankton growth in understudied regions of the oceans affects global climate.”

The team is particularly interested in better understanding how nutrient cycling in the upper ocean layer affects carbon dioxide storage in the deep ocean. Church and his international team of scientists will focus on subtropical ocean gyres. Subtropical ocean gyres are large, circular currents driven by wind and the Earth's rotation. They are among the largest ecosystems on Earth. Algae production in these gyres consumes significant amounts of carbon dioxide, and the submergence of these algal cells transports large amounts of carbon to the deep ocean.

The SUBSEA project investigates how marine organisms in the photic zone – the area from the ocean surface to about 200 meters below the surface – influence the uptake and circulation of carbon dioxide by the ocean gyres from the North Pacific to the South Atlantic.

Founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, Schmidt Sciences brings together 60 scientists from 11 countries around the five initial research projects selected by the OBVI program. The hope is that SUBSEA's research and the four other selected projects will provide clarity on how much carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb and how resilient marine ecosystems are in a rapidly warming world.

“The ocean plays a major role in regulating Earth's climate, acting as a vast store of carbon and heat,” said Lexa Skrivanek, OBVI program leader at Schmidt Sciences. “Studies to date show that the ocean has absorbed and stored nearly a third of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans over the past century. The question of whether it can continue to do so at the same rate is one of the most critical we face today.”

To date, scientists have developed a broad understanding of how the ocean influences climate, but they lack deeper knowledge of the processes that control carbon cycling and storage in the ocean, the relationships between carbon and other element cycles, and the role that marine microbes and animals play in shaping these relationships.

Together, the five selected teams will form a global research network and receive financial support from Schmidt Sciences and access to the Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel Falkor (too), a state-of-the-art, world-class 110-meter research vessel. They will also receive expert onboard support to address the challenges associated with collecting large amounts of biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanographic data. As part of this research, the teams will develop accurate models for all ocean systems to incorporate ocean processes into climate projections and mitigations.

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