Articles | Volume 13, issue 10
Research article
30 May 2016
Research article |  | 30 May 2016

Robotic observations of high wintertime carbon export in California coastal waters

James K. B. Bishop, Michael B. Fong, and Todd J. Wood

Abstract. Biologically mediated particulate organic and inorganic carbon (POC and PIC) export from surface waters is the principal determinant of the vertical oceanic distribution of pH and dissolved inorganic carbon and thus sets the conditions for air–sea exchange of CO2; exported organic matter also provides the energy fueling communities in the mesopelagic zone. However, observations are temporally and spatially sparse. Here we report the first hourly-resolved optically quantified POC and PIC sedimentation rate time series from an autonomous Lagrangian Carbon Flux Explorer (CFE), which monitored particle flux using an imaging optical sedimentation recorder (OSR) at depths below 140 m in the Santa Cruz Basin, CA, in May 2012, and in January and March 2013. Highest POC vertical flux ( ∼  100–240 mmol C m−2 d−1) occurred in January, when most settling material was millimeter- to centimeter-sized aggregates but when surface biomass was low; fluxes were  ∼  18 and  ∼  6 mmol C m−2 d−1, respectively, in March and May, under high surface biomass conditions. An unexpected discovery was that January 2013 fluxes measured by CFE were 20 times higher than that measured by simultaneously deployed surface-tethered OSR; multiple lines of evidence indicate strong undersampling of aggregates larger than 1 mm in the latter case. Furthermore, the January 2013 CFE fluxes were about 10 times higher than observed during multiyear sediment trap observations in the nearby Santa Barbara and San Pedro basins. The strength of carbon export in biologically dynamic California coastal waters is likely underestimated by at least a factor of 3 and at times by a factor of 20.

Short summary
Is the ocean’s biological carbon pump stable or changing? The Carbon Flux Explorer (CFE), capable of year-long missions without tending ships, was invented to address this question. The CFE dives to 1000 m depths and drifts with currents to optically measure the downward flux of sinking carbon using imaging methods. During wintertime tests in California coastal waters, the CFE observed fluxes ∼10 times higher than previously reported. Traditional approaches have undersampled > 1 mm aggregates.
Final-revised paper