What is the Biological Pump?

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by Benard Omondi
7 min read

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Scientists have underestimated the efficiency of the biological pump for centuries. A recent study from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a US research institute dedicated to studies in the marine sciences, has revealed this. Before the industrial era, the ocean was a major producer of carbon dioxide, not a carbon sink. However, the study suggests that the ocean is currently overwhelmed and needs a savior. So, what is the biological pump? Keep reading for more on this, how it has saved the Earth from extinction for years, why and how we should now save it, and more.

Birds flying over the ocean. pixabay

Biological Pump definition

A simple definition of the biological pump or the biological carbon pump is the process through which the ocean uptakes excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and stores it. It currently helps to keep the atmospheric carbon dioxide approximately 400 Parts per Million (PPM) lower than if the ocean were not a reliable carbon sink. So, the biological pump has played a critical role in minimizing global warming and climate change that have been threatening to terrorize the world in the recent past.

To understand the biological pump better, let’s see how it works next. There are trillions of microscopic marine phytoplankton in the sea. Like the green plants on the land, these make their food through photosynthesis. During the day, they take up carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) and use the sun’s energy to transform these ingredients into glucose (C6H12O6) and Oxygen (O2).

These sea plants rely on the glucose for energy, growth, and reproduction.
Please note that the microscopic marine phytoplankton is at the bottom of the marine food chain. This means these plants are primary producers and can make their food without eating other living things. Moreover, the primary consumers in the ocean ecosystem, like small fish, crustaceans, and zooplankton, feed on them. The secondary consumers like small sharks, corals, baleen whales, and fish feed on the primary consumers. What’s more, larger fish, dolphins, killer whales, great white sharks, and other tertiary consumers or living things at the top of the food chain eat the secondary consumers.

So, all the living things in the sea consume carbon dioxide directly or indirectly. When the plants and animals die, they sink with the carbon to the bottom of the ocean, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Why the Biological Pump’s Efficiency Has Been Underestimated

We’ve stated that the ocean’s biological pump keeps the atmospheric carbon dioxide approximately 400 parts per million (ppm) lower than it would if the ocean were not a reliable carbon sink. Do you think this accurately reflects how the atmosphere and the ocean share carbon dioxide molecules?

Remember, some sources indicate that the biological carbon pump keeps the atmospheric carbon dioxide at approximately 200 ppm. The research we talked about in the beginning suggests that 400 ppm could be more accurate. According to the scientists, the biological carbon pump currently captures twice as much carbon as experts previously thought.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research that we cited used the chlorophyll fluorescence detection technique to measure the depth of the euphotic zone, which is the sunlit area on the ocean’s surface. This zone receives adequate sunlight for photosynthesis to take place. The disphotic zone lies beneath it. The respiration rate is higher than photosynthesis here. So, you shouldn’t expect to find most marine species in the second layer.

Ocean light zones wiki

The researchers used the technique to compare the depth of the euphotic zone in different parts of the world’s oceans. Contrary to previous assumptions, they established that the depth of the euphotic zone varies significantly throughout the world. The authors combined their findings with previous studies on the same subject and calculated the depth of the euphotic in all oceans. They finally concluded that as twice as the amount of carbon that was earlier approximated sinks into the ocean every year.

With the new revelations, we’ll most likely be able to tell how the world’s oceans look today and how they might look in the future with a higher degree of precision.

Implications of the New Biological Pump Research

While quantifying the amount of carbon in the oceans can be complex, there’s every indication that the biological pump has been overworking and needs to rest. All the estimates in our possession show that the amount of carbon in the oceans is increasing first. As we mentioned, the ocean was a net source of CO2 before the industrial era. Today, some researchers are talking about 200 ppm, while others 400 ppm. No one is contesting the fact that different factors have forced the ocean to start absorbing carbon dioxide at a much higher rate than ever. Other independent sources indicate that the rate of carbon pollution is increasing fast across the world.

Consistent increase in global CO2 emissions ourworldindata

When defining the biological pump, we’ve implied that natural processes lead to the accumulation of organic carbon under the oceans. One might want to know why the same processes could not do the same before the industrial era. Does that make sense?
It’s true that human activities have been pushing the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to increase beyond the recommended limits. This has exposed the Earth to adverse climate change, global warming, and air poisoning. However, since the Earth is designed to support various life forms naturally, it has forced the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, human-caused emissions are increasing every year worldwide, leaving scientists wondering what the future might look like. Some of the human activities that have exposed the planet Earth to possible extinction are:

  • Combustion of fossil fuels
  • Deforestation and land-use changes
  • Urbanization
  • Industrial processes like cement manufacturing
  • Use of plastics

How to Help Protect the Biological Pump?

It’s evident we need to protect the ocean’s biological pump. Let’s now take a look at some of the key practical ways to do this.

Adopt Solar Powered Carbon Dioxide Conversion Technology

NASA has developed an affordable nanomaterial thin-film device that you can use to protect the biological pump. It converts the greenhouse gas into fuel, thereby protecting the biological carbon pump from the pressure to absorb too much carbon dioxide.

Avoid Plastics and Non-Biodegradables

A recent study has shown that we’ve been using approximately 65 billion gloves and 129 billion face masks worldwide every month since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these end up in the deep ocean, where various sea animals can confuse them for food.

Sea turtle confuses face mask for food pixabay

When sea animals ingest plastics, gloves, face masks, and other wastes that end up in the deep sea, they die, leading to the onset of the second stage of the biological pump process, which is sinking and forming aggregates.

Note: The first stage is the production of carbon by sea plants through photosynthesis in the euphotic zone, as we saw above. The last one is the decomposition and formation of sedimentary rocks.

Shrink Your Carbon Footprint

If the 2019 UN report on climate change is anything to go by, one of the best ways to protect the world’s oceans is to cut our carbon footprint. There are many ways to do this. You can switch to renewable energy, walk and cycle most of the time instead of driving, and more.

Please note that the gases produced by motor vehicles and other machines can form acidic rain and pollute the ocean, causing preventable deaths in this ecosystem.

Other Ways to Help Our Oceans

There are several other things that you can do around town, at home, or anywhere to help the oceans or the oceans’ biological pump. Perhaps, you have done some of them. It’s admirable if you’ve done so.

Before we conclude, let’s take a look at some of the key ways you can help the ocean’s biological pump. These are:

  • Conserve water: You should use water sparingly to prevent excess runoff and wastewater from flowing into the ocean and polluting it.

  • Reduce Pollutants: Dispose of all chemicals properly. Whenever possible, don’t use toxic chemicals.

  • Use less energy: Use energy-efficient bulbs and fuel-efficient vehicles.

  • Fish responsibly: Protect the fish by practising the “catch and release” method.

  • Respect habitats: Don’t destroy the habitats of other living things

What Can You Do Now?

From what we’ve seen, the ocean’s biological pump has been overwhelmed, and part of the reason for that is human-caused emissions. If nothing is done today, the ocean will have no space to absorb and store more carbon in the next few years. The biological pump currently keeps the atmospheric carbon dioxide approximately 400 ppm lower than it would if there was no life in the ocean.

Due to the need to live in and leave behind a better world that we found, we should protect the ocean’s biological pump. Perhaps, the best way to do this from now on is to clarify to our neighbors and friends the long- and short-term impact of the biological pump on human life.