We examine the vertical mixing induced by the swimming of microorganisms at low Reynolds and Péclet numbers in a stably stratified ocean, and show that the global contribution of oceanic microswimmers to vertical mixing is negligible. We propose two approaches to estimating the mixing efficiency, η, or the ratio of the rate of potential energy creation to the total rate-of-working on the ocean by microswimmers. The first is based on scaling arguments and estimates η in terms of the ratio between the typical organism size, a, and an intrinsic length scale for the stratified flow, l = (νκ/N2)1/4, where ν is the kinematic viscosity, κ the diffusivity, and N the buoyancy frequency. In particular, for small organisms in the relevant oceanic limit, a/l << 1, we predict the scaling η ∼ (a/l)3. The second estimate of η is formed by solving the full coupled flow-stratification problem by modeling the swimmer as a regularized force dipole, and computing the efficiency numerically. Our computational results, which are examined for all ratios a/l, validate the scaling arguments in the limit a/l << 1 and further predict η ≈ 1.2(a/l)3 for vertical swimming and η ≈ 0.15 (a/l)3 for horizontal swimming. These results, relevant for any stratified fluid rich in biological activity, imply that the mixing efficiency of swimming microorganisms in the ocean is at very most 8% and is likely smaller by at least two orders of magnitude.
Wagner, Gregory L., William R. Young, and Eric Lauga. 2014. "Mixing by microorganisms in stratified fluids." Journal of Marine Research 72, (2). https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/journal_of_marine_research/385