Biological modification of mechanical properties of the sea surface microlayer, influencing waves, ripples, foam and air-sea fluxes

Gas exchange reduction (GER) at the air-sea interface is positively related to the concentration of organic matter (OM) in the top centimetre of the ocean, as well as to phytoplankton abundance and primary production. The mechanisms relating OM to GER remain unclear, but may involve mechanical (rheological) damping of turbulence in the water immediately below the surface microlayer, damping of ripples and blocking of molecular diffusion by layers of OM, as well as electrical effects. To help guide future research in GER, particularly of CO2, we review published rheological properties of ocean water and cultures of phytoplankton and bacteria in both 3D and 2D deformation geometries, in water from both the surface layer and underlying water. Production of foam modulates air-sea exchange of many properties and substances, perhaps including climate-changing gases such as CO2. We thus also review biological modulation of production and decay of whitecaps and other sea foam. In the ocean literature on biological production of OM, particularly that which associates with the sea surface, the terms “surfactant” and “surface-active” have been given a variety of meanings that are sometimes vague, and may confuse. We therefore propose a more restricted definition of these terms in line with usage in surface science and organic chemistry. Finally, possible changes in OM-modulated GER are presented in relation to predicted global environmental changes.

Jenkinson I. R., Laurent S., Ding H. & Elias F., 2018. Biological modification of mechanical properties of the sea surface microlayer, influencing waves, ripples, foam and air-sea fluxes. ELEMENTA Science of the Anthropocene 6(1): 26. doi:10.1525/elementa.283. Article.

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