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Measuring marine CO2 production

Near the ocean surface, sunlight causes the breakdown of organic compounds and converts them into carbon dioxide. Until recently, this process has been nearly impossible to measure because the additional carbon dioxide produced per day is tiny compared to the existing high concentration of CO2 present in the sea. But using a new technique and a new NSF grant, marine sciences researchers at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are working to provide some answers:

Jay Brandes, Leanne Powers and Aron Stubbins, all part of UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of marine sciences, will use a new technique they developed to measure this process, which is known as photo-degradation.


Brandes described the problem as looking for a needle in a haystack: "You might think this is not important because it is hard to measure, but that's not true," he said. "We're talking about a process that takes place across the whole ocean. When you integrate that over such a vast area, it becomes a potentially very important process."

The project became possible when the team developed a new technique to measure the change in CO2 concentration in a seawater sample. The concept was the brainchild of Powers, a Skidaway Institute postdoctoral research associate. The technique uses carbon 13, a rare, stable isotope of carbon that contains an extra neutron in its nucleus. Researchers will add a carbon 13 compound to a sample of seawater and then bombard the sample with light. The scientists will then use an instrument known as an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to measure the changes in CO2 concentration.

According to Brandes, this project will be breaking new ground in the field of chemical oceanography.

Great work, courtesy of innovative thinking from inquisitive researchers. First-rate facilities expand the research mission and enable our scientists to tackle the big questions. Interdisciplinary projects and new planes of inquiry such as chemical oceanography reveal just how much more scientists can do when they work together and leverage expertise. 

Image: The Skidaway Institute from the air, via

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