Bubbles Transport Massive Amounts of Oxygen to the Deep Ocean through Marine 'Trap Door'


Much more oxygen than previously thought is being transported into deep layers of the ocean through a ‘trap door’ off Canada’s Atlantic coast, that some researchers say could be closing as a result of climate change.

Scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego measured the higher-than-expected transfer of oxygen from the atmosphere to depths as great as two kilometers (1.2 miles) in the Labrador Sea, attributing it to the injection of air bubbles during winter storms.

The transfer happens at the same time as surface water becomes cold and dense enough to trigger mixing with deep, oxygen-deficient waters. This “trap door” connecting the atmosphere with the deep ocean opens for only a few months each year and the Labrador Sea is one of only a handful of regions in the world where it occurs.

“While bubble-mediated gas transfer has been recognised for decades, we have shown how critically important it is when the trap door is open, exposing a vast volume of oxygen-deficient deep ocean water to the atmosphere,” said Dariia Atamanchuk, a research associate in Dalhousie’s Department of Oceanography and the lead author of the study.

The researchers estimate that 10 times more oxygen is transferred to the deep sea each year compared to models that typically do not account for bubbles. This implies that oxygen in the deep ocean may be more sensitive to climate change than previously thought.

The scientists were working as part of a Canadian-led project called VITALS (Ventilation and Interactions Across the Labrador Sea) and outlined their findings in a paper published today in Nature Geoscience. 

The researchers gathered the information using SeaCycler, a unique, robotic profiling system that was anchored in the Labrador Sea in 2016 and collected a wide range of chemical, physical and biological data.

“The SeaCycler was designed to collect sophisticated profiling measurements and carry a very large payload under extreme, very difficult conditions. You really don’t want to be out in the Labrador Sea on a ship, making measurements yourself in winter when these bubble processes are most important,” said Uwe Send of Scripps Oceanography who was also the driving force behind SeaCycler’s development, working closely with engineers at Canada’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

Send and his student Jannes Koelling are the two Scripps Oceanography co-authors of the study.

Understanding how much oxygen is transferred is important because deep ocean waters flow out of the Labrador Sea and supply oxygen to a vast area of the ocean, worldwide.

“We often refer to the Labrador Sea as being one of the lungs of the deep ocean and the deep circulation as being like a blood stream,” said Atamanchuk.

Previous research has suggested that the Labrador Sea’s trap door might be closing, mainly due to increasing amounts of fresh water from melting ice on Greenland and the rapidly changing Arctic. “More fresh water means shallower mixing and that would cause the ocean’s breathing to, literally, become shallower,” said Doug Wallace, an oceanographer at Dalhousie who initiated the study.

Atamanchuk added that the effect of closing a similar trap door off Antarctica may already have been felt in the deep South Atlantic Ocean, which has recorded high and otherwise difficult-to-explain levels of deoxygenation over the past 50 years.

“While the details of transfer by bubbles are not fully understood, our measurements show clearly that they deliver massive amounts of gases such as oxygen to the deep sea when the trap door opens around December,” said Wallace. “The importance of this bubble-mediated transfer may have been overlooked and our finding definitely justifies more observation and study in extreme locations like the Labrador Sea.”


The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology; Government of Canada (Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program); National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); National Science Foundation funded the research.


– Adapted from Dalhousie University

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.