Climate change has altered zooplankton-fuelled carbon export in the North Atlantic

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Marine plankton have been conspicuously affected by recent climate change, responding with profound spatial relocations and shifts in the timing of their seasonal occurrence. These changes directly affect the global carbon cycle by altering the transport of organic material from the surface ocean to depth, with consequences that remain poorly understood. We investigated how distributional and abundance changes of copepods, the dominant group of zooplankton, have affected biogenic carbon cycling. We used trait-based, mechanistic models to estimate the magnitude of carbon transported downward through sinking faecal pellets, daily vertical migration and seasonal hibernation at depth. From such estimates for over 200,000 community observations in the northern North Atlantic we found carbon flux increased along the northwestern boundary of the study area and decreased in the open northern North Atlantic during the past 55 years. These changes in export were primarily associated with changes in copepod biomass, driven by shifting distributions of abundant, large-bodied species. Our findings highlight how recent climate change has affected downward carbon transport by altering copepod community structure and demonstrate how carbon fluxes through plankton communities can be mechanistically implemented in next-generation biogeochemical models with size-structured representations of zooplankton communities.

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Fig. 1: Schematic illustrations of daily and annual vertical distributions of copepods and associated carbon fluxes.
Fig. 2: Distribution and phenology of faecal pellet and DVM fluxes at mixed layer depth for the period 2004–2014.
Fig. 3: Trends in faecal pellet and DVM fluxes at mixed layer depth from 1960 to 2014.
Fig. 4: Distribution and trends in hibernation fluxes.
Fig. 5: Correlation coefficients between flux changes and changes in key variables feeding into the models.

Code availability

All analyses were conducted in the R environment32. Maps were created with the software Generic Mapping Tools43. Code generated for analyses and mapping is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Data availability

Data generated to support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its supplementary information files.


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We acknowledge the Villum foundation for support to the Centre for Ocean Life. Further support was received from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation through award no. 5479’ (T.K. and A.V.W.), the NSF GRFP grant no. DGE-1144205 (K.S.) and the European Union 7th Framework Programme (FP7 2007–2013) through grant no. 308299 (NACLIM) (M.R.P.). We thank the scientists at SAHFOS whose efforts over the years helped to establish and maintain the CPR survey and H. van Someren Gréve for the beautiful copepod illustration.

Author information

P.B., K.S., A.W.V., M.R.P. and T.K. designed the study. K.S. developed the faecal pellet model. P.L. selected the taxa used and compiled the data. P.B. performed the analysis and prepared the manuscript with contributions and support from the other authors.

Correspondence to Philipp Brun.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figs. 1–10, Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Supplementary References

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Brun, P., Stamieszkin, K., Visser, A.W. et al. Climate change has altered zooplankton-fuelled carbon export in the North Atlantic. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 416–423 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0780-3

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