The ocean is home to many fantastic forms of life—blue whales are the largest animals ever to exist, sailfish swim as fast as cheetahs run, and bull sharks bite with the force of 6,000 newtons. But life in the ocean depends on some of its smallest, most unassuming organisms: phytoplankton. Phytoplankton live near the surface of the sea, where sunlight can penetrate and stimulate photosysnthesis, but their life cycles have implications for even the deepest, darkest corners of the ocean. These tiny organisms therefore make the Upper Ocean a highly important area of research and study.
As these billions of small marine plants take up nutrients, grow, die, sink and decay, they:
- produce over half of the world’s oxygen
- exchange carbon and other elements between the atmosphere and the ocean
- convert inorganic nutrients and sunlight into the organic compounds that support essentially all life in the upper ocean
- source the carbon that sinks vertically and feeds midwater and benthic marine life
- show the first effects of changing climate on the oceans
MBARI’s Strategic Plan and Technology Roadmap highlight how MBARI can contribute to a greater understanding of all of these processes. Two inter-related focus areas of these documents— ocean biogeochemistry and ecosystem processes— are important cornerstones. These focus areas form two halves of an inextricable loop: The chemistry of ocean waters fuels living organism and these organisms modify ocean chemistry through their life processes. MBARI is therefore always developing new methods and tools to advance the science of upper water column biogeochemistry and ecosystem processes.