The amount of carbon that is stored by microscopic plankton will rise over the next century, according to research conducted at Bristol University and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

Even though plankton is among the tiniest living beings on the earth, they have the power to affect global climate change. They are the marine life that is most prevalent in the seas, both in terms of quantity and mass.

These little creatures have a variety of effects on our climate. In addition to producing volatile organic molecules like dimethyl sulphide, which aid in the formation of clouds, they absorb and scatter light, warming the ocean’s uppermost layers. Their most important function, however, is the movement of carbon within the seas on a scale great enough to influence atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Lead author Dr. Jamie Wilson from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences said: “The biological pump stores roughly double the amount of carbon dioxide that is currently in our atmosphere in the deep ocean. Because plankton is sensitive to climate change, this carbon pool is likely to change in size, so we set out to understand how this would change in the future in response to climate change by looking at the latest future projections by IPCC models.”

Their findings have been published today in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Using the latest models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Research (IPCC), the team has imagined “the biological pump”- a process by which microscopically small plants, often called phytoplankton, pick up carbon, then die, and sink into the deep ocean, where carbon is stored for hundreds of days in the future.

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Microscopic organisms living on this sun-shielded ocean surface, which are known as plankton, use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.

Warming of the oceans slows down circulation and extends the time it takes carbon to deplete the ocean.

The National Oceanography Centre’s Dr. Anna Katavouta, a contributing author, and Dr. Chelsey Baker, a scientist in her early career, found a consistent rise in the amount of carbon stored in the ocean by the biological carbon pump over the course of the 21st century in the most recent IPCC model projections.

The amount of organic matter, such as dead plankton, that sinks below the ocean’s surface, on the other hand, has decreased globally, which indicates that the biological carbon pump’s export output statistic may not be as accurate as previously believed.


Bristol ) is a city, ceremonial county and unitary authority in England. Situated on the River Avon, (wikipedia)

National Oceanography Centre

The National Oceanography Centre is a marine science research and technology institution based on two sites in Southampton and Liverpool, United Kingdom. (wikipedia)