Chasing Ocean ‘Snowflakes’: New devices measure particles with key role in climate change

Illustration of MINION instrument in the water column

Casting MINIONs upon the waters – Scientists hope to release a fleet of these relatively inexpensive instruments in the ocean to reveal sinking marine particles that help regulate Earth’s climate. (Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative)

By Véronique LaCapra :: Originally published online March 7, 2019

Below the ocean’s surface, sunlight quickly grows dim. But if you could shine a flashlight through the watery darkness, you might find yourself in an unexpected blizzard: a tempest of tiny underwater particles known as marine snow.

That “snow” isn’t snow at all. Each tiny “flake” is a clump of marine detritus: dead microscopic animals called plankton, fecal pellets (poop), bacteria, and other carbon-rich particles that together provide a rich source of food for deep-sea fish, jellies, and crustaceans.

“All those animals have to survive on carbon, just like we do,” said Ken Buesseler, a geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies marine snow. And beyond its role in the food web, he says, marine snow also plays a key part in regulating global climate.

» Read Oceanus magazine feature