How Big a Debt Do We Owe to Plankton?

Roughly a third of all carbon-dioxide emissions eventually get soaked up by tiny floating plants in the oceans. For these plants--especially plankton--life is very short. Those that aren't eaten by fish die within a day or so, sinking to the bottom and burying their carbon more or less permanently at sea.

However, many details of this process are poorly understood. That makes it tough to create accurate computer models for predicting how changes in ocean conditions and CO2 emissions may affect global climate. To fill in the gaps, researcher Russ E. Davis at Scripps Institution of Oceanography designed four-foot-long robot submersibles to keep tabs on the underwater carbon cycle.

On Apr. 10, the first two carbon snoops were launched in the north Pacific. Twice a day, they dive to 3,280 feet and drift with the currents. When they pop back to the surface at dawn and dusk, they relay their collected data via satellite to shore. As more sea-bots are deployed, scientists should get a clearer picture of the role plankton play in regulating the Earth's atmosphere.

By Petti Fong

Edited by Otis Port

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