Mysterious Compound Seen as Key to Ocean Life

Bill Hiscock and Maxime Grand, both of the University of Hawaii, use taglines to control the sway of the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth recorder) rosette as it enters the water. The rosette is a system of specialized bottles attached to a metal framework that travels deep into the water column to gather samples. When the rosette and the accompanying sensors are removed from the water, the package will hold twelve 10-liter bottles of seawater and weigh a total of 1800 lbs. (Image credit: Daniel Park)

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

When bits of natural organic matter from leaves and other sources break down, they can enter rivers and ponds and cause a buildup of yellow-brown organic matter that amasses as the tiny plants die.

The drab material is known as chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM), and while its origin is fairly well known in coastal and inland waterways, scientists know far less about the origin and chemical composition of the material in the oceans.

Scientists believe heterotrophs, organisms that cannot produce their own food—such as bacteria—produce and release the mysterious group of organic chemical compounds into their surrounding environment as they decay and new studies are now focusing on understanding CDOM in the oceans.

Researchers know that CDOM, when struck by sunlight, plays a critical role in ocean chemistry, impacting reactions that can effect greenhouse gas emissions that can in turn warm the planet, sulfur compounds that can cause cloud formation that can cool the planet, and iron concentrations that are critical to ocean plants.

By understanding marine CDOM, scientists will better understand life in the oceans and how organisms and compounds in the seas are affected by light.

One group of U.S. scientists has been studying CDOM since 2003, with several members recently traveling aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle to look at the material both at and below the ocean’s surface.

According to University of California at Santa Barbara researcher Norm Nelson, nobody’s done this before. Few have looked at oceanic CDOM anywhere except in the surface layer of the ocean where it’s illuminated by the sun. That’s why researchers are grateful for the chance to go to sea.

“It’s a great opportunity to go to sea to test our hypotheses and discover new things,” said Nelson. “It's worth all the long hours, and the weather, and all the difficulties of travel.”

Because it is an emerging area of study, the CLIVAR/CO2 Steering Committee selected the researchers to participate in selected CLIVAR cruises. The CDOM group has received renewed funding from NSF for some of these cruises and NASA has recently granted funding for the optics work.

So how exactly does a researcher get involved in studying matter of such mysterious origins? Often it starts out simply as curiosity.

“We got into the study of CDOM by accident,” said Nelson. “My colleagues discovered the presence of an unknown factor that controlled the color of the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda that wasn't phytoplankton [tiny marine plants], which we'd always assumed was the most important. I made some measurements that demonstrated it was CDOM, and a whole new area of research opened up for us.”

By studying the amount of light going into the ocean and the amount of light coming out of the ocean, scientists can validate ocean-color remote-sensing measurements and quantify the light available for photochemistry and photobiology. All of these are related directly or indirectly to CDOM.

On the I8S CLIVAR/CO2 cruise aboard the Roger Revelle, scientists measured CDOM levels below the surface using a suite of instruments such as a hand-held profiler that principally contains light sensors, a spectrophotometer that measures how much light is absorbed by CDOM at different wavelengths (colors) of light, instruments that face upward and measure light coming from the sun, and instruments that face downward to measure the radiance spectrum ( a measure of light color bouncing back). The hand-held profiler also contains a fluorometer to measure chlorophyll in plants and a sensor to measure turbidity – the amount of tiny debris particles floating in the water.

The researchers also used an innovative instrument called the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth recorder) rosette, a system of specialized bottles attached to a metal framework that travels deep into the water column to gather samples. As one of the primary instruments for the CLIVAR cruise, it collects water that researchers later analyze for a range of information and also houses additional sensors. In addition to the sensor data, the researchers collect actual CDOM specimens and phytoplankton, as well as information about the impact of bacteria.

The detailed study of CDOM will help researchers bring Earth-based data to bear on years of satellite measurements of phytoplankton. CDOM plays an important role in controlling the color of the ocean as observed by satellites, absorbing ultraviolet and blue light and making the ocean appear more yellow. Scientists estimate the amount of chlorophyll present in seawater by measuring how green the water appears to satellites, and CDOM (in concert with the blue color reflected by ocean water) helps make the ocean appear greener than it is, throwing off estimates of how much phytoplankton is in the seas.

In addition to providing fundamental information about the nature of CDOM, the new studies will allow scientists to validate remote sensing estimates of marine plant biomass and productivity and may open new possibilities for using ocean-color remote sensing with studies in areas such as photochemistry, the photobiology of ultraviolet radiation and even ocean circulation.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.