UM News Service

FLATHEAD LAKE – A new research project led by the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station expands the impact of the station’s renowned expertise from mountain watersheds to ocean depths.

Dubbed SUBSEA – the Subtropical Underwater Biogeochemistry and Subsurface Export Alliance – the project is one of five global science and technology efforts selected by the Schmidt Sciences Ocean Biogeochemistry Virtual Institute, which aims to address gaps in ocean data and modeling efforts by improving the breadth of research and expanding capacity to understand ocean resources.

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

“I’m most excited by the collaborative opportunities afforded by the Schmidt Sciences investment in our SUBSEA project,” Church said. “By bringing together an international team of scientists and cutting-edge tools, this project will allow us to explore how plankton growth in understudied regions of the oceans modifies global climate.”

The team is particularly interested in improving understanding of how nutrient cycling in the upper ocean impacts carbon dioxide storage in the deep sea. Church and his international collaborative team of scientists will focus on subtropical ocean gyres. Defined as large, circular currents propelled by wind and the Earth’s rotation, subtropical ocean gyres are some of the largest ecosystems on Earth. Algal production in these gyres consumes significant amounts of carbon dioxide, and sinking of these algal cells moves large quantities of carbon to the deep sea.

The SUBSEA project will examine how marine organisms in the photic zone – the area from sea surface to about 200 meters below the surface – affect the gyres’ absorption and circulation of carbon dioxide from the North Pacific to the South Atlantic.

Started by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, Schmidt Sciences is bringing together 60 scientists from 11 countries through the five inaugural research projects selected by the OBVI program. The hope is that the research from SUBSEA and the four additional selected projects will provide clarity on how much carbon dioxide the ocean can hold and the resilience of marine ecosystems in a rapidly warming world.

“The ocean plays a powerful role in regulating Earth’s climate and acts as a vast repository for carbon and heat,” said Lexa Skrivanek, OBVI program lead at Schmidt Sciences. “Studies to date reveal that the ocean has absorbed and stored nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted over the past century. The question of whether it can continue to do so at the same rate is one of the most critical ones we face today.”

To this point, scientists have developed a broad understanding of how the ocean shapes climate. However, they lack a deeper knowledge of the processes that govern carbon cycling and storage in the ocean, connections between carbon and other elemental cycles, and the roles that marine microbes and animals play in shaping those relationships.

Together, the five selected teams will make up a global research network and receive financial support from Schmidt Sciences and access to Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel, the Falkor (too), a state-of-the-art 110-meter global-class research vessel. They also will receive expert shipboard assistance to tackle the challenges associated with collecting large amounts of biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanography data. Through this research, the teams will develop accurate modeling across ocean systems to address ocean processes in climate projections and mitigation.