The three carbon pumps of the ocean: biological, carbonate, and physical

Learn about how three pumps in the ocean work to cycle carbon around the seafloor, the Earth's interior, and the atmosphere.


Carbon is the most critical component of all biological compounds and is exchanged around the Earth through a biogeochemical cycle (Archer, 2010). Although carbon is part of natural planetary systems, current concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the highest they have been in 14 million years, and this increase is attributed to anthropogenic activity, specifically from the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s (Etheridge et al., 1996; Falkowski et al., 2000; Zhang, Pagani, Liu, Bohaty, & DeConto, 2013). The oceanic carbon cycle is comprised of processes that cycle carbon around different areas of the ocean, the seafloor, the Earth’s interior, and the atmosphere. In pre-Industrial Revolution times, the ocean provided a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere, whereas now most of the carbon that enters the ocean comes from anthropogenic, atmospheric CO2 (Raven et al., 2005). According to Falkowski et al. (2000), the ocean is a reservoir for ~38,400 gigatons (Gt) of carbon, a vast amount when compared to the terrestrial biosphere (~2,000 Gt) and the atmosphere (~720 Gt). CO2 is diffused into the ocean’s surface waters and dissolves, now ready to enter the oceanic carbon cycle through three pumps: the biological pump, the carbonate pump, or the physical pump (Duan & Sun, 2003). The biological pump utilises autotrophy, such as photosynthesis by phytoplankton, to export carbon from the upper, sunlit ocean to the ocean interior or seafloor sediments and respire organic carbon into inorganic carbon (Emerson & Hedges, 2008). The carbonate pump is a process of ocean carbon sequestration driven by calcifying plankton, which releases CO2 back into the atmosphere but sequesters it by sinking to the seafloor (Smooth & Key, 1975); this is why this process is also referred to as the carbonate counter pump. The physical pump is the physio-chemical process whereby carbon is transported from the ocean surface to its interior, where it can be stored for hundreds of years (Ito & Follows, 2003; Toggweiler, Murnane, Carson, Gnanadesikan, & Sarmiento, 2003).

The Biological Pump

The biological pump is a process of oceanic carbon sequestration that is driven mainly by autotrophic phytoplankton that inhabits the surface waters. This method of autotrophy, photosynthesis, converts CO2 (dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC)) into organic biomass (particulate organic carbon (POC)) (Passow & Carlson, 2012; Sigman & Hain, 2012). Photosynthesis is the initial method of bringing carbon into the biological pump. It is further moved throughout the ocean by entering the food web after phytoplankton, which are primary producers at the lowest trophic level, are eaten by consumers. Carbon can then stay in the food web as higher trophic levels continuously consume organisms, or it can be released from the food web in the form of defecation or dead tissue (Passow & Carlson, 2012). This carbon sequestration process by primary production accounts for a vast majority of carbon fixation on Earth (Christina & Passow, 2007; De La Rocha, 2003).

Carbon is also moved into deep ocean currents or seafloor sediments by sinking organic matter. Organic material is formed by phytoplankton in the euphotic zone located at the surface level of the ocean. When plankton or other marine organisms eat, defecate, die, and decompose, this material, known as marine snow, begins to sink downwards (Passow & Carlson, 2012). One phytoplankton cell sinks at a rate of approximately 1 metre per day, meaning that, with an average depth of 4,000m, it can take over ten years for one carbon-carrying phytoplankton to reach the seafloor. Organic and inorganic matter, as well as expulsion of faecal matter from larger predators, aggregate to form marine snow that has a greater sinking velocity and can complete its journey to the seafloor in days (Heinze et al., 2015; Turner, 2015). Once this sinking organic biomass reaches deep-sea levels, it can enter the food web by becoming metabolic fuel for organisms that live there, including benthic organisms and deep-sea fish (Turner, 2015). Sinking matter transports an estimated 5–20 Gt of carbon to the deep ocean annually, where between 200 million–500 million tonnes of carbon is sequestered for thousands of years in seafloor sediment (Giering et al., 2020; Guidi et al., 2015; Henson et al., 2011). Any global warming-induced change on the integrity or function of phytoplanktonic populations will alter the efficiency at which POC is transported to ocean depths, with feedbacks on the rate of climate change.

With less than 0.5 Gt of sinking carbon reaching sequestration in seafloor sediment, between 44.5 Gt – 54.5 Gt of carbon is remineralised in the euphotic zone (Ducklow, Steinberg, & Buesseler, 2001) and between 5 Gt – 6 Gt of carbon is remineralised in midwater processes during particle sinking (Feely, Sabine, Schlitzer et al., 2004). Remineralisation occurs in the biological pump when heterotrophic organisms utilise organic matter produced by autotrophic organisms. They recycle the compounds from the organic form back to the inorganic form through respiration, making them available for reuse in primary production (Guidi et al., 2015). Remineralisation usually occurs with dissolved organic carbon (DOC) rather than POC because particles must typically be smaller than the organism taking it up for remineralisation (Lefevre, Denis, Lambert, & Miquel, 1996; Schulze & Mooney, 2012).

The particles that make it to the seafloor sediment may remain there for millions of years, trapping the carbon with them. Together, the processes that make up the biological pump ultimately remove carbon in its organic form from the ocean’s surface and return it to DIC in the deeper ocean. The thermohaline circulation (THC) returns deep-ocean DIC to the atmosphere on timescales that exceed millennia (the topic of THC will be explained further in “The Physical Pump”).

The Carbonate Pump

The carbonate pump is an extension of the biological pump but instead sequesters particulate inorganic carbon (PIC) and is driven by calcifying organisms (organisms that produce calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells). The leading contributor to the carbonate pump is the calcifying plankton known as coccolithophores due to the vast quantity of their global population. Coccolithophores are eukaryotic, unicellular phytoplankton that produces overlapping calcite platelets called coccoliths and are currently one of the most significant contributors to carbonate sediments in the deep sea (Hofmann et al., 2010; Renaud, Ziveri, & Broerse, 2002). Coccolithophore production of coccoliths through the uptake of dissolved inorganic carbon and calcium produces CaCO3 and CO2, hence the alternate name of carbonate counter pump.

Ca2+ + 2HCO3- → CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O

However, some of the CO2 released in calcification can be used in photosynthesis (Mackinder, Wheeler, Schroeder, Riebesell, & Brownlee, 2012), and over extended periods coccolithophores contribute to decreased levels of atmospheric CO2. It is currently unknown as to the function of the coccolith. However, many theories have been proposed, including protection from predators or grazing zooplankton (Young, Andruleit, & Probert, 2009) or ballasting the cell for vertical migration into deeper water (Raven & Waite, 2004). The latter would be of considerable advantage to the carbonate pump in getting the carbon trapped in coccoliths to the seafloor. The most abundant species of coccolithophore is Emiliania huxleyi. It is likely to be the greatest global producer of calcite, meaning this species is an essential organism in transporting carbon from the ocean to be buried in marine sediment; they play a crucial role in the global biochemical carbon cycle (Balch, Holligan, & Kilpatrick, 1992).

The production of CaCO3 shells in calcifying organisms such as molluscs, foraminifera, coccolithophores, crustaceans, echinoderms, and corals (Zondervan, Zeebe, Rost, & Riebesell, 2001) is the central part of the carbonate pump. When CO2 dissolves in the surface layer of the ocean, it combines with water molecules. It enters into a series of chemical reactions that result in ions that calcifying organisms combine with calcium ions (Ca2+) to form CaCO3 (Zeebe & Wolf-Gladrow, 2001). Even though one CO2 molecule is released in calcification, one carbon atom becomes trapped within the CaCO3 molecule used in calcification and becomes part of the sediment once it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. This means calcification takes two carbon atoms from the environment and only releases one back into it, even though the formation of calcium carbonate shells is a source of CO2 (Mackie, McGraw, & Hunter, 2011) over the long-term calcifying organisms provide a sink for CO2.

Calcifying organisms provide a large mechanism for the downward transport of CaCO3 (Smith & Key, 1975). Dead organisms sink to the seafloor and dissolve on the way down and release carbon into deep-sea currents or reach the seafloor and build up to form CaCO3 sediments stored for large timescales. The scale at which CaCO3 makes its way down varies from species to species. For example, calcifying zooplankton (pteropods, ostracods and foraminifera) promote fast particulate inorganic carbon sequestration to the deep ocean due to the relatively large mass of their shells, which makes them sink rapidly. In comparison, calcifying phytoplankton such as coccolithophores will hardly sink individually, and even still, they have a broad range in sinking rates when they assimilate into biological aggregates. The burial of CaCO3 in deep-ocean sediment is one of the primary mechanisms to reduce atmospheric CO2 on geological timescales related to silicate weathering processes (Cartapanis, Galbraith, Bianchi, & Jaccard, 2018). Eventually, tectonic processes, including heat and pressure, transform seafloor sediments containing CaCO3 into limestone; this process locks carbon away for millions of years (Folk, 1980). Over time, these sediment layers eventually return carbon to the oceans by weathering and erosion (Gibb, 1978).

The Physical Pump

The physical pump uses different processes to transport DIC from the ocean surface to its interior. Firstly, the solubility of CO2 in water is the initial process of getting carbon into the ocean as DIC (Duan & Sun, 2003). Carbon dioxide dissolves in oceanic water and, unlike many other gases, it reacts with water to form a collective of ionic and non-ionic species (DIC), which include dissolved free carbon dioxide (CO2 (aq)), carbonic acid (H2CO3), bicarbonate (HCO3−), and CO32− (Weiss, 1974). There is a strong inverse function of seawater temperature on the solubility of CO2, as solubility is greater in colder water (Toggweiler et al., 2003). As sea surface temperature (SST) increases, less CO2 can be taken up by the ocean; the progressive warming of the oceans releases CO2 in the atmosphere because of its lower solubility in warmer seawater.

The THC is part of a global, oceanic conveyor belt, driven by heat and freshwater fluxes, where thermo refers to temperature, and haline refers to salinity, which together determines seawater’s density (Rahmstorf, 2003). The model of THC was first described by Stommel and Arons (1959), where they explored how temperature and salinity moved ocean water around the globe. Seawater with higher temperatures expands and is less dense than seawater at lower temperatures (Millero, Gonzalez, & Ward, 1976). Seawater with higher salinity is denser than seawater with lower salt content (Millero et al., 1976). Seawater with lower density floats over denser seawater; this is known as stable stratification (Maiti, Gupta, & Bhattacharyya, 2008). When dense seawater masses are initially formed, they are not stably stratified and will seek to correctly locate themselves vertically by their density and become stably stratified. This stratification process is the main driving force behind deep ocean currents, which carry carbon that has sunk from surface layers on the global conveyor belt, essentially sequestering it for hundreds of years.

The process of denser seawater joining the global conveyor belt is called downwelling. Higher density water accumulates and sinks below lower density water at places within the ocean where warm rings spin clockwise and create surface convergence, pushing the surface water downwards (Rao, Joshi, & Ravichandran, 2008; Yang, 2009). These areas of downwelling bring large amounts of carbon from the surface waters to be sequestered down below. Alternately, upwelling brings dense, cooler water to the surface to replace the warmer surface water. This water is usually nutrient-rich, including dissolved CO2, meaning that these areas of upwelling provide an ideal location for an abundance of phytoplankton to carry out primary production and ultimately recycle the carbon brought to the surface from the deep ocean (Sarhan, Lafuente, Vargas, Vargas, & Plaza, 2000)


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2 comments on “The three carbon pumps of the ocean: biological, carbonate, and physical

  1. Larry Fernald

    Fernalds the name, pumpings my game 😎

    Liked by 1 person

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