Sounding Out the Carbon: The Potential of Acoustic Backscatter Data to Yield Improved Spatial Predictions of Organic Carbon in Marine Sediments

Corallie A. Hunt, Urška Demšar, Ben Marchant, Dayton Dove, William E. N. Austin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
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Marine sediments hold vast stores of organic carbon (OC). Techniques to spatially map sedimentary OC must develop to form the basis of seabed management tools that consider carbon-rich sediments. While the natural burial of carbon (C) provides a climate regulation service, the disturbance of buried C could present a significant positive feedback mechanism to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. We present a regional Scottish case study that explores the suitability of integrating archived seafloor acoustic data (i.e., multibeam echosounder bathymetry and backscatter) with physical samples toward improved spatial mapping of surface OC in a dynamic coastal environment. Acoustic backscatter is a proxy for seabed sediments and can be collected over extensive areas at high resolutions. Sediment type is also an important predictor of OC. We test the potential of backscatter as a proxy for OC which may prove useful in the absence of exhaustive sediment data. Overall, although statistically significant, correlations between the variables OC, sediment type, and backscatter are relatively weak, likely reflecting a combination of limited and asynchronous data, sediment mobility over time, and complex environmental processing of OC in shelf sediments. We estimate linear mixed models to predict OC using backscatter and Folk sediment type as covariates. Our results show that incorporating backscatter in the model improves the precision of OC predictions by 14%. Backscatter discriminates between coarse and fine sediments, and therefore low and high OC regimes; however, was not able to discriminate amongst finer sediments. Although sediment type is a stronger predictor of OC, these data are available at a much lower spatial resolution and do not account for fine-scale variability. The resulting maps display varying spatial distributions of OC reflecting the different scales of the predictor variables, demonstrating a need for further methodological development. Backscatter shows considerable promise as a high-resolution predictor variable to improve the precision of surface OC maps, or to reduce the number of OC measurements required to achieve a specified precision. Applications of such maps have potential in improved C-stock estimates and the design of conservation and management strategies that consider marine sediments as valuable C stores.
Original languageEnglish
Article number756400
Number of pages20
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2021


  • organic carbon
  • sedimentary carbon
  • multibeam
  • folk classification
  • acoustic backscatter
  • carbon stocks
  • spatial models
  • climate mitigation


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