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Carbon Storage and Ice Melt: Marine Organisms Combat Climate Change in Antarctica?

Sep 21, 2015 05:40 PM EDT

Good news for Antarctic waters. As sea ice is lost to a warming climate, bottom-dwellers are flourishing and storing an unexpected amount of carbon, according to David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Barnes has studied these seafloor creatures for two decades.

"It was a surprise that life had been invisibly responding to climate change for more than a decade below one of the most obviously visible impacts of climate change: the 'blueing' poles," Barnes said in a news release. "We've found that a significant area of the planet--more than three million square kilometers--is a considerable carbon sink and, more importantly, a negative feedback on climate change."

Climate change is often associated with negative effects, especially regarding reducing viable habitats for polar bears. This process is only expected to continue as Earth absorbs heat and melts sea ice even more. 

The knowledge that marine life in Arctic ecosystems could help fight climate change is not new. However, this study, recently published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, explains how West Antarctic bryozoans, or "moss animals," are more important for carbon storage.

To better understand the abundance of marine life lying along the ocean floor, the researchers took high-resolution images. From this they have been able to determine that significant increases of West Antarctic bryozoans have been produced annually. This also means more carbon storage. In fact, the researchers estimate that these species have taken in the equivalent of about 50,000 hectares of tropical rainforest, the release noted. However, an added perk of this type of carbon storage, is that it could potentially be buried, which means as long as it stays buried it won't return to the atmosphere.   

The researchers also explained that the differing amounts of carbon storage observed throughout regions in Antarctica, is directly related to sea ice melt. These findings are important to understanding the relationship between climate change and ocean life.

"The forests you can see are important with respect to the carbon cycle and climate change, but two-thirds of our planet is ocean, and below it the life you can't see is also very important in climate responses as well," Barnes said in a statement.

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