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In the deep ocean, marine snow is a continuous shower of mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the water column. Its origin lies in activities within the productive photic zone. Consequently, the prevalence of marine snow changes with seasonal fluctuations in photosynthetic activity and ocean currents. Thus marine snow is heavier in spring, and the reproductive cycles of some deep-sea animals are synchronized to take advantage of this.
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Marine snow has a composition which includes: dead or dying animals and plants (plankton), protists (diatoms), fecal matter, sand, soot and other inorganic dust. The "snowflakes" (which are more like clumps or strings) are aggregates of smaller particles held together by a sugary mucus, transparent exopolymer particles (TEPs); natural polymers exuded as waste products by bacteria and phytoplankton. These aggregates grow over time and may reach several centimetres in diameter, travelling for weeks before reaching the ocean floor.
However, most organic components of marine snow are consumed by microbes, zooplankton and other filter-feeding animals within the first 1,000 metres of their journey. In this way marine snow may be considered the foundation of deep-sea mesopelagic and benthic ecosystems: As sunlight cannot reach them, deep-sea organisms rely heavily on marine snow as an energy source. The small percentage of material not consumed in shallower waters becomes incorporated into the muddy "ooze" blanketing the ocean floor, where it is further decomposed through biological activity.
Marine snow has begun to garner interest from microbiologists, owing to the microbial communities associated with it. Recent research indicates transported bacteria may exchange genes with what were previously thought to be isolated populations of bacteria inhabiting the breadth of the ocean floor. In such an immense area there may be as yet undiscovered species tolerant of high pressures and extreme cold, perhaps finding use in bioengineering and pharmacy.
Because of the relatively long residence time of the ocean's thermohaline circulation, carbon transported into the deep ocean by the biological pump can remain out of contact with the atmosphere for more than 1000 years. Consequently, some scientists have suggested that marine snow could play a role decreasing the atmospheric concentration of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (and mitigate the strength of the greenhouse effect). By fertilising certain unproductive regions of the world ocean, the resulting phytoplankton blooms could, via sinking marine snow, transport extra carbon to the deep ocean.
Projected increases in ocean temperatures caused by global warming may result in a decrease in the production of marine snow via the enhanced stratification of the water column. Increasing stratification decreases the availability of phytoplankton nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate and silicic acid, and could lead to a decrease in primary production and, thus, marine snow.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Marine_snow". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|