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With the help of the R/V Atlantic Explorer crew and POGO scholars, Maureen Conte prepares to deploy the OFP's 3200-meter sediment trap into the Sargasso Sea. (Photo: JC Weber)

Sediment traps in the Sargasso Sea provide continuous record of oceanic fluxes

While cruising off the coast of Bermuda might sound peacefully idyllic to many, resident Adjunct Scientist Maureen Conte orchestrates a finely-tuned, action-packed research cruise to recover and redeploy the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP) mooring every four months, sometimes facing turbulent weather of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Conte and her team were deploying moored sediment traps for the OFP, a 31-year time-series that she has led for over a decade. They were accompanied by international graduate students from the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) program. The students were aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer as part of a class on Moored Observatories that Dr. Conte was teaching at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS). Representing some of the brightest upcoming oceanographers around the world, the participation of the POGO scholars lays the foundation for future international collaborative ties with the OFP.

The OFP is the longest time-series of sedimentation patterns to the deep ocean and anchors Dr. Conte's oceanographic research activities, helping to foster research and educational collaborations across the diverse scientific community. The OFP mooring's three sediment traps collect a continuous record of particulate flux through the water column. Detailed analyses of flux composition using a variety of chemical techniques yield valuable insights into the interplay between the ocean's particle cycle, ocean biology and physics, and climate.

Dr. Conte and her colleagues study sinking oceanic particles that carry with them many different elements and organic compounds. Some elements in the sinking flux are essential to support life. The depths at which these are dissolved and then redistributed by ocean currents to rise again to the surface controls nutrient distributions that regulate the ocean’s productivity, the global cycles of many elements, and the rate at which oceans can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Sinking organic debris, and what is left behind by vertical migrating zooplankton, provides the food that fuels most life below the sunlit surface of the ocean. The residual material that survives to be deposited on the seafloor and preserved in the sediments retains a rich record of past ocean conditions that is used to reconstruct the earth’s history.